Christopher Nolan’s much awaited Dunkirk hit the screens last month marking the critically acclaimed director’s first foray into historical fiction. Three years after his space exploration film, Interstellar, Nolan’s presentation of an epic rescue was expected to be a human drama about survival. Despite being one of the darkest moments in WWII for the Allies, the rescue at Dunkirk is arguably one of the points where the tide turned against the Axis powers. The film turned out quite successful, as critics, academics and most importantly, filmgoers have embraced Dunkirk for its masterful execution as well as poignant story-telling that presents unconventional images of muted heroism not typically seen in war movies. Kristin Thompson talks about the atmospheric construction of narrative exposition where the emphasis is more on what characters want (Alex describing Gibson looking for a way out on the rescue boat instead of getting a piece of bread) rather than any totemic background details, including character names. David Bordwell sees a similarity between Nolan and Kubrik who are rare filmmakers capable of turning a genre film into an art film, and elevating it further into both a prestige and an event film.
These critical responses give shape to the overwhelming feeling of awe when a film-enthusiast encounters a Nolan film. The sheer technical brilliance of his work curmudgeonly steers clear of contemporary dependence on CGI and meticulously builds tangible movie magic with practical effects. From the innovative rotating camera-rig for the corridor fight in Inception, to the complex but clear fictional technology created in The Prestige, Nolan’s skill as one of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers of the 21st century is unquestionable. I do not share the view that Nolan does not write well-rounded characters. Just the strikingly terrifying portrayal of Heath Ledger’s Joker suggests that he has an eye for unique and powerful characters. While the individual characters maybe plot-devices in a meat-suits, I find that the relationships between the characters evoke the much-needed drama that sustains us in the narrative. I was blown away by the tense dynamic between Robin Williams and Al Pacino in Insomnia, as I was with Guy Pearce and Joe Pantoliano in Memento. Come to think of it, the tension between male characters with opposing views has been the engine that drives forward Nolan’s films from The Prestige to the Batman Trilogy. This dynamic changes with Inception and Interstellar, where the relationship dynamic is between a male protagonist and a female family member – Cobb’s wife in the former and Cooper’s daughter in the next. In sum, there are few filmmakers who I can be certain of delivering a thrilling and entertaining film experience like Christopher Nolan.
I say all this, because I personally had a bit of a problem with Dunkirk. I enjoyed it as much as one could enjoy a tightly produced war thriller, but I also felt that there was some inexplicable gap between the film’s intention and its final output. I agree with much of Thompson and Bordwell’s assessments of the presentation of nobility in the place of valor, and the brilliance of Nolan’s craft of filmmaking. However, I find myself unable to reconcile the dissonance between the intended message of survival and the overtly heroic conclusion of the ending. Although Nolan himself has called it an “intimate epic”, the conclusion stresses the epic more than the intimate. I was particularly uncomfortable with Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech from 1940 juxtaposed with the dramatic success of the rescue operation, because I simply could not erase from my own cultural memory the atrocities conducted by his government during the Bengal famine of 1943.
The image of an underdog Britain who seemed to outsmart and out-luck the Germans because of some special (divine?) cloak of invulnerability was simply unpalatable to me. And, the British achieved this extraordinary victory, without a single non-white face in sight. Now, I am not a WWII historian, but I was pretty certain that one of the main reasons why the war was called a “world war” was because of the international scale in which it was fought, and due to the spread of the empire, how many diverse groups of people fought in it. Perhaps, I thought, this particular stretch of the war was fought exclusively by white British soldiers considering how close it was to the Isles. After all, have not the critics been raving about the accuracy of the details in the film from the kind of people who inspired the specific characters as well as the equipment and vehicles used in it? Surely, I was being over-sensitive and simply wrong-headed to expect diversity in a historically accurate film. And then I came across this article by Sunny Singh in The Guardian.
For those who did not read the article, here is the TL;DR version: it erases the presence of the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies from the British side, who were not only there on the beach, but also tasked with transporting supplies to areas inaccessible for the motorized transport companies. Besides the Indians, the film also left out non-white soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and other colonies who fought on the French side. The article frames the exclusion of non-white characters in the context of a grand, selective mythologizing of Britain’s past in a post-Brexit world. More than anything else, the article externalizes the concerns that I had watching the film and makes me question the contradictory reaction that I had in doing so – how do I account for my enjoyment of the film when clearly I am uncomfortable with much of its politics? And in a broader sense, is being politically sensitive a mutually exclusive option to enjoying the film?
When I look at the film and its publicity material now, I cannot help but feel irritated by its blatant jingoism. From a by-line that proudly claims Dunkirk to be “the event that shaped our world” to a description that explains “when 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” I cannot help but wonder if the reverse is also true, that is, if Britain is home only to those who were shown on screen as the ones waiting to be rescued. I will be the first to admit that movies are not reality but the narrative around Nolan’s film has time and again stressed on the attention to detail and historical accuracy. Nolan himself has prided himself on the fact that they used airplanes as close as possible to the real thing to get the same effect. Even in a fictional movie like Interstellar, Nolan’s obsessive efforts to bridge science fiction with science probability (if not actual science fact) was a big part of the buzz around the film. While we do not watch Ip Man expecting a true bio-pic of Bruce Lee’s master, Dunkirk painstakingly constructed metanarrative is a claim to history and a promise to tell a definitive version of that story. Nolan’s own words during interviews describe his desire to portray a moment of human victory amidst historical/practical loss, so the exclusion feels deliberate, jarring and painful. The absence of significant diversity in Nolan’s earlier films have not been a real concern to me, because they are fictional worlds and need only address the rules determined within it. While I wonder now how hard it is to write a non-white central character in any of his previous films, I do not think it diminishes the value of the films overall. Whereas the excision of non-white characters to obscurity is something that the director should be held accountable for. Even the absence of typical whitewashing where a non-white figure of history is rewritten for or simply played in earnest by a white actor, this removal from history is significantly more dangerous.
Ultimately, I have to recognize that, yes I enjoyed the movie, but I’m also uncomfortable with its politics. And while there is no recourse between these two poles, there is definitely a need to develop such vocabulary to explain the relationship between these ideas. It is easy to categorize things we find problematic under the same list as things which we dislike, but perhaps it is more important to articulate our complex feelings about the missteps in things we actually like. That is why it is important to talk about the mishandling of sexual violence as a throwaway plot-point in Game of Thrones, and spousal abuse in Breaking Bad and excessive police power in The Shield. The bigger the reach and influence that a pop-culture text enjoys, the more important it is for us to locate our criticism from a place of love, if our intention is to start a dialogue with the fandom as well as other critics. We should not have to ignore that ambivalence of our cinematic and televisual encounters and the response need not be defined in terms of either defending Nolan at whatever cost or bashing the film in its entirety. That is the purpose of criticism – it recuperates the flaws of art by expressing our reaction to it.
A Note about the photos of the soldiers: They are not from Dunkirk, but I decided to randomly include them based on their color, in the same random way that Christopher Nolan decided to exclude them from his film.
SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.