One of my favourite directors.
Two of my favourite actors.
Amazing visuals that deserve to be seen on the big screen.
A fantastic score by my favourite movie composer.
One of the most inspiring true stories in military history.
And yet, despite the stakes involves, the soaring score by Hans Zimmer, Christopher “Batman” Nolan at the helm and Tom “Bane” Hardy and Mark “Wolf Hall” Rylance in the cast, Dunkirk left me cold.
Hey, I love war movies. God knows how many times I’ve seen 300. Or Inception and Nolan’s Batman trilogy in its entirety, for that manner. I’ve even written two military thrillers, one of which I published just one week ago.
So I like the subject material and the director.
I wanted to like Dunkirk more.
It took me a while to figure out why I didn’t, but I finally have the answer. (Not seen Dunkirk or don’t want any spoilers? Stop reading now.)
The answer: emotional content and context.
Because you never see the enemy.
Not in the face.
And because of the nature of the violence involved.
There is a direct dynamic between the distance between the person trying to kill you and the emotional impact involved. The closer the person, the more “personal” it feels. The closer they are, the more it feels like they’ve got it in for you. That they want to harm you … you specifically, not some anonymous figure in the trenches or on the beach.
(That’s kind of the reason why Freddie and Jason and all those close-quarter maniacs are so scary. They’ve got in it for you personally. More people die from heart disease or accidents but it’s the terrorist or lone gunman, seeking us out personally to inflict violence, that we fear.)
Close-range violence is the most personal. From all reports, that is the most traumatic distance – for both the person being targeted and the person trying to inflict the damage (because most humans have an instinctive aversion to harming and killing others).
By hand or knife is the most personal.
Followed by close-quarter gunshot or other weapon.
Then short-distance shooting.
Then the more impersonal mortar rounds or shelling.
Then say torpedoes, and, finally, long-distance aerial bombing.
Virtually all of the danger in Dunkirk comes from the Luftwaffe, from their fighters and their bombers.
The first attacks inspire a sense of dread, of the sense of being trapped in a hopeless situation where survival was a victory in itself.
And then, somehow, the violence becomes somewhat impersonal.
Because it is delivered from a distance.
And we never see a German face.
We see the terrified faces of the Tommies on the beach. We feel for them as bombs drop on ships full of troops. We hope they escape the treacherous, freezing water.
But we have no such emotional investment in the enemy. For emotional content, the enemy needs to be close. And it needs a human face.
I love Nolan and everything he’s done way back since Memento. And I realise that Nolan would have had to change history to give me what I want. I realise he wanted to keep things as historically accurate as possible: putting German faces in might just not have been feasible.
Dunkirk is a worthy addition for your DVD collection.
But my go-to war movie will probably remain Saving Private Ryan. It is a film full of emotional content. The first 20 minutes? Mindblowing.
We see the Germans’s faces: we see them battle in close quarters: we even see glimpses of courage and humanity from them. They are a fully realised enemy.
Plus it has Tom Hanks.
One of my favourite directors.