Produced and distributed by Warner Brothers 
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan

Produced by Millennium Films 
Distributed by IFC Films 
Written by Jeff Feuerzeig and Jerry Stahl 
Directed by Philippe Falardeau 

You wouldn’t think a director who’s made three extravagantly fanciful Batman movies would be interested in turning his hand to a realistic rendering of a true episode from World War II, but this is what Christopher Nolan has done with his film Dunkirk.  The result is something of a technical marvel, even if it’s somewhat dramatically muddled.

Nolan has pulled out the big guns for his account of the 1940 Allied evacuation from Dunkerque, during which over 330,000 British and European soldiers were ferried across the English Channel by the destroyers Winston Churchill decided he could spare, accompanied by over 800 citizen-owned fishing boats and yachts summoned to the occasion by charity and patriotism.  Nolan shot the film on 70mm film stock with IMAX cameras.  The latest in Dolby sound recording lends portent to a thrumming score by Hans Zimmer, underpinned with a ceaseless ticking, as if events are headed toward Armageddon, which they might well have been but for some unexplained luck and the Germans’ seeming reluctance to prosecute their attack to the bitter end.  For the audience, the results are engulfing, no more so than in scenes that take place aboard a small yacht in the rescue flotilla.  As the boat bobs in the Channel, you’re likely to feel yourself reaching for the railing and eyeing the gray-green sea as it laps up toward your vertiginously dipping bow.  In the air above, British and German fighter planes slash through sunlit skies rattling machine-gun fire at one another.

In short, Nolan gives us the works.  So much so that many seem to have missed his point—or what I think is his point.  His film is not an exercise in standard patriotism, as more than several reviewers have assumed.  Instead, it’s thoroughly antiwar.  If I’m correct, Nolan is at pains to indict leaders on both sides, Allies and Axis, who despite their knowledge of what happened in the Great War a mere 22 years earlier once again have ordered boys to shoot and bomb other boys.  This is made explicit in several scenes that subversively punctuate the action.  Dawson (Mark Rylance), a Great War veteran, puts it best.  He’s come out on the Channel in his small yacht with his son and another boy to save as many stranded servicemen as he can.  At one point, he’s attacked by a sailor (Cillian Murphy) whom he has taken aboard after pulling him from a capsized lifeboat.  The sailor had been saving men from drowning when his craft was sunk by a U-boat.  He’s terrified when he learns that Dawson is sailing toward Dunkirk rather than England.  He shouts contemptuously that Dawson is “too old” to be undertaking such a mission.

Dawson responds ruefully: “Men my age dictate this war.  Why should we be allowed to send our children to fight it?”  No one has an answer for this.

Earlier, he had explained to his son that Murphy’s character is suffering from shell shock.  “He’s not himself and may never be again,” he grimly observes.  It’s a diagnosis that applies to many caught up in the madness of this conflict.

In a later scene, soldiers who have been evacuated from Dunkirk enter Dover’s port, where they are welcomed and cheered by ordinary citizens who’ve come to offer them food and tea.  One of them is an elderly blind man, who congratulates the young soldiers as he ladles stew into cups for them.  A rescued soldier questions the welcome, saying that they didn’t succeed, they merely survived.  The old fellow replies, “That’s enough.”  Why did Nolan put this scene into his film?  It surely doesn’t celebrate heroic action.  Instead, it acknowledges the unquestioning decency of common people at home.  These are the “little people” who are blind to the forces controlling their fate.  They take as genuine the bullying rhetoric of their warmongering leaders.  Just as today, many are praising Donald Trump’s bellicose rants against North Korea.  Ordinary folk are easily taken in by such bluster, as indeed I was when younger.  Justin Raimondo’s September column in these pages, “Opposite Directions,” (Between the Lines) makes this abundantly clear by comparing the mindless anti-Soviet rhetoric coming from many on the right in the 1950’s with the similarly stupid and often self-interested bloviating from the left regarding the supposed Russian threat today.

Nolan’s film begins with five British soldiers running from unseen German attackers through the streets of Dunkirk.  The assailants shoot and kill four of the terrified British boys as they attempt to scale a seven-foot fence.  The one who escapes is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), whose name is clearly meant to recall the centuries-old sobriquet for common British soldiers.  Tommy manages to escape through a resort pavilion, where he encounters several thousand British soldiers lined up in queues on the beach, anxiously waiting for rescue.  The first thing he does is walk off until he’s out of sight.  He then lets down his pants and defecates.  As the expression has it, he’s scared shitless.  He then joins another fellow, and together they carry a wounded soldier on a stretcher to one of the queues that’s making its way onto a rescue vessel.  The waiting soldiers honorably part to let them through.  Tommy’s motive may also be honorable, but it also seems self-interested.  He and his partner want, above all, to escape.  Who would blame them?

Tommy then disappears as other players, often nameless, come to the fore.  There are no individual heroes here, with the possible exception of Farrier, the Spitfire pilot played by Tom Hardy who shoots down several German Stukas, saving hundreds, possibly thousands of boys on the beach.

Later, Tommy reappears with the film’s final words.  They’re not his own, nor are they comforting.  In fact, they are quite discomfiting.  Having escaped from Dunkirk and returned to England, he and several other boys are put on a train to London.  At a station in Woking, they get a newspaper that has published Winston Churchill’s famously defiant speech: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,” culminating in an appeal to the New World, i.e. the U.S., to come and save the old one.  Stern, patriotic stuff, but there’s no defiance in Tommy’s delivery.  He recites Churchill’s words tonelessly, stripping them of all of their rhetorical charge.  The result is devastatingly anticlimactic.  The speech now mocks Churchill and all other warmongers who championed battle as a noble duty.

Clearly, Nolan’s purpose is to honor ordinary folks who find themselves caught up in a conflict they neither understand nor desire.  Of officers, we meet only two.  And of statesmen, none.  One officer is Commander Bolton, played by Kenneth Branagh.  He registers his undisguised disgust when he receives orders that he’s to return 30,000 men to England so the British can prepare their armed response to Hitler’s likely attempt to invade the homeland.  The official communiqué doesn’t bother to mention the other stranded men.  In the event, nearly 200,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops were rescued.  Another 108,000 men were killed or captured.  It was a disaster varnished over with adroit public relations.

Nolan has been careful not to show us any of the Germans, except for some shadowy troops who appear at the very end to arrest a British pilot who’s made an emergency landing.  Odd choices to make if the film were meant to rouse patriotic feelings.  But that’s just it.  He has drenched his film in regret for what he regards as England’s needless bellicosity.  He has made not a celebration but a lament.  He seems to agree with Pat Buchanan that the two world wars were unnecessarily brought on by the dunder headed, vainglorious misjudgments of those in power in 1914 and again in 1940.  There’s no Jack Hawkins or David Niven here, much less a John Wayne to save the day.  You leave the theater with an overwhelming sense of anger at the waste that was inflicted on the little people by those who should have known better.

One more thing.  Nolan has orchestrated his account on three distinct but interwoven timelines.  On land, the story covers a week; on water, a day; in the sky, an hour.  In his other films, notably Memento and Inception, Nolan has put his temporal obsession to good account.  But here it hinders his intentions.  He’s had to scramble the film’s incidents so that they often become confused, sometimes unintelligible.  I needed a second viewing to understand things that would have been clearer had he followed a more conventional narrative structure.  It seems to me that Nolan has been innovative for innovation’s sake at the expense of his thematic intentions.  Nevertheless, this is filmmaking of a high order.

Speaking of obsession and little people, we have Chuck, the story of a somewhat unsavory citizen—albeit one who finally proves to be a decent if rough-edged sort.  He’s Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber), the man who provided Sylvester Stallone with the story line of his fabulously profitable film Rocky, and thus initiated the indefatigable franchise that’s followed it.

Wepner is a heavyweight journeyman from Bayonne, New Jersey, who improbably got the chance to fight Muhammad Ali in 1975 when the champ whimsically decided to cash in on the Great White Hope obsession nurtured by many Caucasian followers of the sweet science.  Even more improbable, Wepner knocked Ali on his ass and, despite not winning the bout, went only 19 seconds short of 15 rounds with the Mouth, getting dumped onto the canvas himself only once.

Wepner’s talent in the ring had more to do with his bulk and ability to take a punch.  He seems never to have mastered boxing fully, thus painfully earning himself the title the Bayonne Bleeder.  Schreiber wrote and stars in the film.  Maybe he saw in Wepner an analogy to his own career.  Schreiber is an actor whose demeanor defines stolid perseverance.  I don’t mean this as a put-down.  He’s been quite good in many roles and has the distinction, owing to his dourness, of never showboating nor overacting.  In short, he’s a thespian bleeder who’s risen to the occasion, again and again.

There’s not much else to say about Chuck.  I found it an enjoyable depiction of the lowlife that populates so much of the Garden State and a cautionary tale for anyone granted his moment in America’s unforgiving celebrity dazzle.