On The Beach

It’s surprising that the evacuation of Dunkirk has not been the subject of a film prior to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. It’s been touched on in other films, such as Atonement, but it’s never been the focus. Part of the problem is the story doesn’t fit the “Rah-rah, we’re gonna win” mentality of most World War II films. Even with the few made during the war years that dealt with defeats, such as They Were Expendable, Bataan, and Wake Island, were designed to motivate because of the sacrifice of the characters. The greatest US defeat, Pearl Harbor, has been filmed twice for the big screen, first in the interesting but uneven Tora Tora Tora, and then in Michael Bay’s over-stuffed mish mash Pearl Harbor. In each, the loss becomes the starting point for winning. Tora Tora Tora ends with Admiral Yamamoto’s quote that he feared all they’d done was awaken the slumbering giant. Bay extends his movie to include the Dewey raid on Tokyo months after Pearl Harbor, though the story of that raid was done better in 30 Seconds Over Tokyo.

Dunkirk doesn’t fit neatly into that narrative. The British army was swept back to the ocean’s edge by the German blitzkrieg, and suffered around 100,000 casualties or troops captured. Yet the British pulled off the astonishing achievement of rescuing over 300,000 troops off the beach. Even greater, the salvation of the Army was pulled off by private citizens who answered the call to pilot their small ships across the treacherous English Channel. While it went the other way, it was an accomplishment on par with D-Day, and in fact there likely wouldn’t have been a D-Day without Dunkirk. What shaped up to be an inglorious defeat that arguably would have led to a German invasion of Great Britain, was instead turned into a miracle.

Nolan has created a lean feature with a running time of an hour and forty-six minutes, and like his first success, Memento, it plays with time. He focuses on three stories that intertwine, even though one plays out over the course of a week, the second in a day, and the third in an hour. Eventually, all the stories come together.

The movie begins with the week-long story of the trapped soldiers. A group of British stragglers walks through the streets of Dunkirk as leaflets drop from the sky, proclaiming them surrounded. Then German snipers open up. One of the group, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes it over a gate and climbs to the next street where he reaches the French defensive lines. From there he wanders down to the beach, a wide expanse filled with English soldiers. German dive bombers regularly scream down upon the troops and attack transports that attempt to rescue the soldiers. Tommy meets Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and wordlessly forms a team with him. The officers in charge on the beach, Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Army Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), fear they can’t even save a tenth of the troops.

In England, the day comes to activate a plan to mobilize small pleasure boats to sail to France. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) loads stacks of life preservers onto his cabin cruiser with the help of his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and another local lad, George (Barry Keoghan). At the last moment, George jumps on board to accompany the Dawsons, saying he can be of help. What they’re heading toward is soon brought home when they come upon the stern of a sunken ship bobbing in the water with a shivering soldier (Cillian Murphy) sitting alone on it.

In the air, a flight of three Spitfires head to Dunkirk where they’ll only have enough petrol left in their tanks to fight for one hour. One soon becomes the victim of a German fighter, but the other two pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), try to provide air cover for the ships rescuing the soldiers.

Nolan has meticulously researched the battle and the rescue operation, and while he purposefully didn’t seek to reproduce photographic images of the battle, he gets the details right. It helped that a majority of the movie was filmed on the actual Dunkirk beach. Nolan also used Spitfires left from the Battle of Britain in the aerial sequences, and a number of the small boats rescuing the soldiers in the movie were part of the evacuation 77 years ago.

Nolan also cast the movie to match the soldiers pictured from those days. Fionn Whitehead was eighteen years old when the film was shot and hadn’t been in front of a movie camera before. He gives an exceptional performance with very little dialog; Nolan wanted images to tell the story more than words. In the same way, Mark Rylance’s quiet heroism stands in for all those who answered the call to help. He’s straightforward without pretentiousness, but he also knows a compassionate lie can show mercy.

I read a story today of a 97-year-old veteran of the battle who saw the film at a theater near his home in Canada. He attended wearing a jacket and tie, mirroring Mark Rylance’s costume in the film. He wore his Army beret, and his medals from the war were pinned to his jacket. The veteran had tears in his eyes after the film. “It was like I was there again…I could see my old friends again.”

That’s the best endorsement a historical film could ask for.

When Good People Do Something

In the 1700s, Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The statement has been proved true time and again, but the proof has come in both the negative and the positive. In the last century political leaders appeased Hitler in the 1930s, which led to war and the Holocaust in the 1940s. At the same time individuals like Oskar Schindler, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, and Sir Nicholas Winton saved thousands from extermination during the war. They didn’t do it for glory; their actions were mostly unknown during their lifetimes. They did it because it was the right thing to do.

Schindler was known only to a handful until Thomas Keneally’s told his story in “Schindler’s List,” which reached the masses through Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation. Now Spielberg tells the story of another regular person who stood up for what was right at a time of hysteria in the US. Bridge of Spies is the story of James B. Donovan, a Harvard-educated lawyer who was counsel for the OSS during WWII and who helped with the prosecution at the Nuremburg Trials after the war. In the 1950s he was a partner in a New York City firm specializing in real estate law when his country called for his service again.

The movie begins in 1957 as the FBI closes in on Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), an English-born Russian spy operating in New York City. After his arrest the government is faced with trying him for espionage, but no lawyer wants to seem disloyal to the US by defending Abel. Through his firm’s senior partner, Thomas Watters (Alan Alda), the government approaches Donovan (Tom Hanks) to take the case. The authorities expect Donovan to put on a show defense while Abel is convicted and sentenced to death, but Donovan believes that everyone is entitled to the best legal defense. The case eventually ends up before the Supreme Court.

Concurrent with Abel’s trial, the film shows the flip side of the espionage story with the recruitment of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and other Air Force pilots to work for the CIA as U2 spy plane pilots. Donovan saves Abel from the death penalty by suggesting to the judge that he might not want to set a precedent that the Soviets could follow if an American spy is captured. It’s a prescient argument when Powers is shot down over the USSR and Donovan is drafted again to negotiate an exchange.

There had been interest before in telling the story before. Gregory Peck had wanted to make a movie of it a few years after the event, with Alec Guinness as Abel, but his studio (MGM) wasn’t supportive. There was a TV movie in the 70s that told the Powers side of the story in an attempt to repair his reputation. When he returned to the States many considered him incompetent for getting shot down and captured, and he ended his days as an airborne reporter for a TV station in Southern California. He died in a helicopter crash in 1977, sacrificing himself to avoid hitting where children were playing.

Instead the story waited over 50 years to be told, but in this case it has aged remarkably well. The script is remarkably literate and detailed in its presentation of the late-50s/early-60s period. Spielberg recruited fellow filmmakers Joel and Ethan Cohen along with Mark Chapman to write the script, and they capture the era perfectly – a time when people expected an atomic war and children were taught to duck-and-cover, as if that could save them from incineration. They also capture parts of the incident that have been forgotten. While the events of the film transpired over the course of 5 years, Spielberg tells the story with the intensity and immediacy of a Cold War spy thriller. Spielberg’s long-time cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, provides rich color for the scenes in the US while changing to grays and shadows when the story switches to Berlin. This movie marks a major change for Spielberg, since it’s the first time he’s had anyone other than John Williams score one of his pictures. However, the movie is well served by the subtle theme written by Thomas Newman.

Hanks, as always, is stellar as Donovan, capturing the lawyer’s cerebral intellect as well as his quiet courage. Mark Rylance embodies Abel beautifully. When Donovan asks Abel why he’s not worried, Abel responds “Would it help?” They have the interchange three times in the movie, and each time Rylance adds shades of meaning to the simple exchange. Also outstanding is Amy Ryan as Donovan’s supportive if not always understanding wife.

In my recent review of Suffragette, I said that the film was more narrowly focused rather than giving a panoramic understanding of the time to the audience. Bridge of Spies is the opposite; you come out of the theater feeling like you’ve just had a trip in a time machine. As often happens, history cycles, and the themes of this film are as topical today as they were when these events took place. If you sacrifice the laws that are the foundation of this country in the name of expediency because of fears, then you also sacrifice the honor of the country as well. We need to be the good people who do what’s right if we really want to keep evil from triumphing.