Sunday, March 28, 2021


Today I finally watched this 2017 movie, which I picked up at the same time I fished Mortal Engines out of the cheapo DVD bin at Walmart. Directed by Christopher "Inception" Nolan, it features an ensemble cast including Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, James D'Arcy, Cillian Murphy, an unrecognizable-until-literally-the-last-minute Tom Hardy and pop star Harry Styles, for what it's worth. Some of the characters played by actors whose names I won't mention because they probably won't make a dent in your consciousness (they didn't in mine) are probably more important than most of those played by the above, but everybody did a great job and it was altogether a great movie – considering that hardly any of the characters had names and most of the events are depicted from the point of view of little people, not the great personalities of history.

The closest the movie comes to dramatizing the towering figures on the world stage is when the main character reads aloud from a newspaper account of Winston Churchill's speech about the evacuation of Dunkirk ("We will fight them on the beaches," etc.) – which, if Darkest Hour depicted it accurately, fell flat in the House of Commons and doesn't sound much more inspiring in the monotone voice of the youngster whose struggle for survival we've been following for much of the movie. The music tells you you're supposed to feel moved at that point, but the bit that really moved me was the other hero youngster, Peter, putting a story in the newspaper praising the heroism of his friend George, who was killed in a senseless accident in the middle of the flotilla as the two boys and Peter's father were yachting across the channel to help rescue the British soldiers trapped by the German advance.

Oops. Spoilers. Well, the movie's been out for four years now, so quit your whining.

For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, first of all, shame on you; and second, Dunkirk is where a bunch of small civilian vessels pulled 300,000 British soldiers off the French shore in 1940 just in the nick of time to keep them from being destroyed by the Germans. The movie does a good job of portraying the desperateness of the situation, with one British soldier – the credits call him Tommy, but I don't remember his name ever coming up – standing in for the whole mass of military assets that fell into jeopardy at that early stage in World War II, when losing them would have been tantamount to anointing Adolf Hitler as emperor of the world. Though indeed a "colossal military disaster" in Churchill's words, the evacuation enabled the U.K. (and some French forces) to fight on until the U.S. entered the war. Where Darkest Hour depicts this story almost entirely from Churchill's war room and the floor of the House of Commons, where he rallied a reluctant country to oppose the Third Reich at all costs, Nolan's picture splits its point of view between a fighter pilot (Hardy), a Royal Navy commander overseeing the retreat (Branagh), the boy, his father and his ill-fated friend on the yacht (Rylance etc.), and this Tommy kid (somebody named – never mind), who seems to spend the entire operation swimming from one vessel to another just in time for the boat under him, or in front of him, to get blown up by a torpedo, an aerial bomb or even (in one instance) machine-gun fire. He finally ends up being literally the last survivor pulled out of the drink by Rylance's son.

The movie delivers a lot of suspense, terrific visuals and some gut-punch hard-to-watch examples of why war is hell. Among the terrible moments it depicts are a shell-shocked survivor of a U-boat attack inadvertently sending an innocent boy plunging to his doom; a moment where a group of soldiers decides which among them must go to his certain death to save the others; wholesale carnage as a mostly unseen enemy scores hits on the good guys' ships and planes; a pilot's decision to keep fighting the enemy even when it means not being able to make it home; life-and-death struggles to escape sinking vehicles; and other such carnage. It's not easy to see, and it doesn't always show people at their best, but there are some moments that Made It For Me, of which I'll name Three:

(1) Branagh telling the army colonel (D'Arcy), after evacuating all the Brits he can, that he's going to stay at Dunkirk to see the French saved as well. The nobility of this decision stuns D'Arcy and brings a lump to my throat. (2) Hardy's wingman gets shot down, ditches very successfully but then has trouble opening the hatch to escape from his sinking plane. Very suspenseful! (3) As I hinted before, the bit where Peter goes to the newspaper with his dead friend's picture and gets him written up as a hero – the moment, for the record, when soft touch that I am, I started crying. Of course, this pays off an earlier bit where the injured George confides that he'd always hoped to do something that would get him in the newspaper. From a character I almost didn't notice at first (George was more out front, at the very beginning) to being very tender with his dying and dead friend, and at the same time sparing of the feelings of the shell-shocked guy who caused his death (Murphy: "Is the boy all right?" Peter, who has just learned that George is dead, gulp: "Yeah") Peter, along with his dad, turns out to represent the fiber of the British people that made their country's survival possible in its – I have to say it – darkest hour.

No comments: