The Female Gaze Column: Why ‘Dunkirk’ was my favorite summer film

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The summer of 2017 had a packed slate of movies. Between “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2” to “Atomic Blonde,” studios were competing for audiences weekend after weekend.

    There were so many successes this summer, “Wonder Woman,” “Baby Driver,” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” to name a few, but my favorite summer blockbuster was the one who surprised us all: “Dunkirk.”

    Dunkirk” was my favorite movie of the summer because it is a non-Hollywood film that became a blockbuster hit. Marketed as an action thriller, the British-centered WWII historical piece consumed audiences and gave us a different way of watching film in multiplexes across the country. A film with little dialogue, a non-classical narrative, an ensemble cast, and little context won two weekends at a heavy-slated box office and has made $177 million domestically to date.

    Based on the evacuation of 300,000 British soldiers on the beaches of France during World War II, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” portrays the history behind the “Spirit of Dunkirk,” a story well known to those from Great Britain, but unfamiliar to U.S. audiences.

    Director, screenwriter and producer Christopher Nolan transports audiences to the beaches of northern France in 1940, where the Germans have surrounded the Allied forces and trapped them between gunfire and the ocean.

    Startled by heavy artillery from an enemy we can’t see, we follow British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) to the French beaches filled with thousands of soldiers standing in long lines that reach the sea.

    Given little information with inaudible dialogue and booming sounds of bullets from German planes, we must figure out the evacuation alongside Tommy and the thousands of men stuck on the beach with him.

    Back in England, we meet civilians Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and friend George Mills (Barry Keoghan). Dawson’s ship, one of the many “Little ships,” is requisitioned for the Royal Navy to retrieve as many soldiers as possible across the English channel.

    In the air, we meet members of the Royal Air Force, Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), who try and protect the soldiers from German bombings along the rocky pier, called a mole.

    Each perspective, mole, air and sea, has its own timeline within the film where all three converge before the two-hour experience ends. As the evacuation ensues we meet other young soldiers like Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles), “shell-shocked” soldiers (Cillian Murphy), and commanders of both the land and sea (Kenneth Branagh).

    Despite the losses at Dunkirk, which Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the U.K. at the time, describes as a “colossal failure” in his speech following the evacuation, the soldiers are greeted home with cheers and thankfulness that they returned home safely.

    “Dunkirk” intrigued me because despite its non-Hollywood form, it ended up at the center of Hollywood for the summer. Pieced together in a non-linear timeline, the complex narrative creates a never-ending feeling of desperation which drove me to hope the next ship to dock at the mole wouldn’t sink from enemy bombings.

    The film’s scope was unlike that of any other contemporary war film. The narrative wasn’t about the bloody Battle of Dunkirk. It wasn’t about Allied leaders debating how to win the war. It didn’t even display the swastika or any Nazi soldiers. We fear an invisible enemy, only hearing the screeching sound of German Luftwaffe planes and watching the aftermath of German gunfire, torpedos, and bombings from above.

    “Dunkirk” focuses on the soldiers being evacuated from the beaches of and those trying to save them. To the British, survival was victory, and Nolan’s “Dunkirk” embodied that message wholeheartedly.

    Despite some complaints about the lack of a main character or confusing narrative, I believe the ensemble cast represented the multiple perspectives of those who experienced the evacuation at Dunkirk. The “Spirit of Dunkirk” has a variation of meanings for those who made it across the channel, or those who helped get them home. Without the many perspectives, the story of Dunkirk would be incomplete.

    Although the lack of context and audible dialogue can be confusing, I believe it is so necessary to our understanding of the event. If we are to experience the evacuation alongside Tommy, Gibson, or Alex, we aren’t going to know who is sitting next to us. We aren’t going to know their background and we may never see them again. But, in that two-hour time, we as audiences are living alongside them, rooting for a stranger’s survival as they try to cross the channel.  

    Audiences may have come to see “Dunkirk” because of Christopher Nolan, Hans Zimmer, or Harry Styles, but expectations were transformed once audiences realized they were in for a cinematic experience different than that of any other film at the box office this summer.  

    As we head into the fall theatrical slate, check out the movies from the summer at Ashley Square Cinema in Greencastle. “Dunkirk” is playing until Thursday.