SHORT TAKE: An intense and powerful but still intimate experience of the historic Operation Dynamo rescue at Dunkirk of over 300,000 desperately trapped Allied soldiers by mostly civilian volunteers told from all three perspectives of land, air and sea.
LONG TAKE: We’re all the way back home and I’m sitting behind my computer but my heart is still pounding. Dunkirk is one of those films, along with the likes of Hacksaw Ridge, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List and Lone Survivor which you owe to those who endured the experience to bear witness to what they endured.
I THINK I HAVE AVOIDED ALL SPOILERS – I’m only referencing things you could see in the trailer.
Dunkirk, lest you not know, was the "Miracle" of Operation Dynamo in which one-third of a million soldiers were rescued from advancing German forces from the sandy shores of the bombed out and abandoned seaside French town of the same name. The rescue took place primarily not by a military cavalry, nor by a charismatic leader or even by the Avengers, but by….civilians in over 700 private vessels including yachts, fishing boats, personnel ships, tugboats, hospital ships, fireboats, trawlers, lifeboats, pleasure craft, a paddle steamer, the River Mersey Ferry, and other small ships, the smallest of which was only 15 feet long, several of which have been preserved in museums and a dozen of which are actually used IN the movie! These unnamed intrepid incredibly courageous crews all made their way across the channel from Ramsgate, England to either bring their boys directly home or ferry them from the beaches to the destroyers waiting offshore. Many were simply weekend sailors, fishermen and other private citizens – including older men, boys and women – who responded to the call for help. All braved death to bring their own home. The tagline is quite accurate. When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them – literally.
Directed by Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight, Interstellar and Inception), this incredible 10 week episode is told in telescoped perspective, hopping back and forth in time to accommodate the fact that the three main dovetailing stories cover different spans of time. A week in the case of the soldiers stranded on the beach, a day for the sailors who came to pluck them away from death and mere hours for the few air force able and allowed to provide air cover. As a result some events are told once and then retold from a different character’s perspective. It can be a little confusing but if you pay attention, as you should, this challenging POV is artfully and satisfyingly crafted by Nolan to tell the story with a depth you might not otherwise have been able to get.
Some background is needed to understand the scope of desperation created by the situation. 400,000 men were surrounded, hopelessly outnumbered, gunned and flanked by the Germans. German planes straffed and bombed the helpless men on the beach. America was not yet in the war. Most of the Allied air force were either otherwise committed or held back in anticipation of the Battle over Britain to come. The destroyers were held back for the same reason. But without these men, England was done for as they made up the bulk of their army.
Although placed in harm’s way by a disastrous military defeat, the fortitude and courage required by these brave people to face imminent brutal death to rescue their own was testament to the British Spirit required to win the war and inspirational world wide. And even though they were only three-quarters successful these civvie sailors managed to multiply the most optimistic predictions of the Operation Dynamo organizers by TEN TIMES! Headquarters hoped to save 30-45,000. The British citizens rescued over 330,000.
I do not believe any of the individual characters represent one individual person but each represent an amalgam of heroes. Kenneth Branagh puts his stamp on the military leadership who stayed behind to provide order to the soul destroying chaos as Commander Bolton. Tom Hardy (Inception and Dark Knights Rises) and Jack Lowden are air force Spitfire pilots who provide what protection they can against the German Stukas for the "Little Boats" and the men on the beach. Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) as Mr. Dawson comes closest to portraying an individual – a thinly veiled Charles Lightoller, the second officer from the Titanic, who with his son and his friend insisted on taking his own ship across. Much is seen through the eyes of Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, a young soldier cut off from his company, terrified and stranded, risking everything but his own conscience to get home. Cillian Murphy (Inception and Dark Knight) portrays a shell shocked young officer plucked from the sea by Dawson. Michael Caine does a voice cameo you have to have a quick ear to catch and there’s a point of film trivia which gives this a bit of poetic symmetry.
Although merely referenced in Atonement, the classic Mrs. Miniver, Their Finest (Hour and a Half), and The Snow Goose – the latter a very old Hallmark Show starring Richard Harris and based on a short story by Paul Gallico (Poseidon Adventure), the story of Dunkirk was only filmed once before. Appropriately enough it was called — Dunkirk. Made in 1958 it follows, on the Dunkirk end, much like Desperate Journey, a small group of soldiers led by John (Swiss Family Robinson) Mill’s character Tubby, who trek from a mission to blow up a bridge to the shores of Dunkirk. On the British end we root for two weekend civilian pleasure sailors portrayed by Bernard Lee and a very young THE Sir Lord Richard Attenborough (acted in Jurassic Park, Doctor Doolittle, Sand Pebbles, the Great Escape, and Branagh’s Hamlet, directed Chaplin, Magic, Gandhi, A Chorus Line, and Shadowlands, and a life long friend of the previously mentioned John Mills). The 2017 Dunkirk cast includes none other than Sir Attenborough’s grandson, Will.
If I have only one gripe, it is that Nolan's personal take blunts the vastness of the Herculean effort that was required. At no time did I really get the sense of almost half a million men stranded on the beach or the hundreds and HUNDREDS of ships which answered the call to aid. What Nolan has done is show a portion of it from the point of view of a few people. A few shots show a LOT of people but does not really convey the scope of almost a half million men trapped on a beach. I can't help thinking that even one aerial shots of beaches showing the enormity of the task and the sheer number of boats who came to their aid might have hit the right "awe-ness" aspect this event deserves, much like the railroad scene in Gone With the Wind where Scarlett walks through the sea of wounded.
But that's enough of the quibbles. I have only mentioned the highlights of the movie’s virtues. There is much more to credit it in the visuals, the storytelling, and the performances.
This film is a hour and 45 minutes of unrelenting tension but goes by like a snap of the fingers as you are drawn into these historic events through these characters’ experiences. As one of the characters alludes – if they have done nothing else in their life but this they will have contributed much.
I’m as big a fan of comic book heroes as the next geek, but every generation should have real heroes to look up to like these men and women who risked their lives to pluck their own from the gates of Hell and bring them home. And Nolan does a beautiful job of giving homage to them all.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes
Escape from the Planet of the Apes
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
Battle for the Planet of the Apes
(Featuring some of the most popular prepositions: of, beneath, from and for)
Instead the army raises their guns to shoot Caeser but a well timed deus ex avalanche comes along right then and takes out the force in white. We never do get to find out who the heck they were. Shame too. Might have made for a more interesting story.
SHORT TAKE: The solution to the mystery behind the lyrics to the song "Ode to Billie Joe".
LONG TAKE: The lyrics from “Ode to Billie Joe” have always puzzled me and after five decades of hearing this song I finally know why. And, yes, this subject DOES belong in a movie/theater blog because the mystery behind this song was speculated upon in a movie of the same name in 1976 starring Robbie Benson – the geeky looking kid who shocked audiences when it was discovered he was the one who produced the magnificent and overpowering Disney Beast voice in the original ANIMATED Beauty and the Beast. The movie Ode to Billie Joe was…….interesting.
Not one I’d necessarily recommend you rush out and see but not terrible. But neither is it terribly relevant to this blog so leave that for another day.
If you’ve never heard the song it is worth taking the time to listen.
50 years ago today, on July 10, 1967, "Ode to Billie Joe" made it to the airwaves. It is a haunting, melancholy folk song by Bobby Gentry sung with only a guitar as accompaniment with a bit of violin to occasionally sweeten the background. If you want to listen, it is here.
She paints the picture of a small quiet Southern town and the family she grew up with, having breakfast one early summer morning:
It was the 3rd of June,
Another sleepy dusty Delta day…
As she goes on to describe this unnamed town, you feel it is the kind of place in which the children’s book, Meanwhile Back at the Ranch, could have been set. In the children’s book a farmer goes into town, and while his wife experiences incredible adventures visited upon their doorstep, the most exciting thing that happens to him while in town is to watch a turtle cross Main Street. That kind of town.
In the Bobby Gentry song, however, a more sombre tone is set as the family shares mild town gossip then the Mom casually mentions that:
And now Billy Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
Then the father notes:
Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits, please.
This comment might rise to the level of casual cruelty except that her father doesn’t seem to have the slightest idea his comments have had any effect at all on anyone at the table, much less his stricken daughter. No one notices the effect this bit of tragedy has had on her. In a brilliant piece of writing, the narrator’s response is not expressed but noted in the next stanza by the mother’s laconic observation that:
… child, what's happened to your appetite?
I've been cookin' all morning, and you haven't touched a single bite
And then the family goes on to discuss more gossip including how the new preacher:
…saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
But no one ever follows up on that bit of news.
I have always had a fascination with this song. The reason for the boy’s apparent suicide is never explained. Neither is the narrator’s connection, except for her subdued but profound reaction to the news as noted obliquely by her mother.
When asked, Bobby Gentry herself said she did not know why Billie Joe MacAllister leapt to his death from the Bridge, nor even if it was a suicide. And then I read an article the other day which brought some clarity to the issue. The song is not ABOUT Billie Joe MacAlister. It is about the detached, casual, almost cruel way the family brings it up and the fact that they do not notice their daughter/sister’s obvious and deep distress.
No one in her family registers that maybe she was even in love with the young man, although total strangers – we the audience – notice with the dismay that comes from watching someone collapse in grief from a distance which precludes our ability to do anything about it. We, who’d never even heard of this young woman until listening to this song, see and understand what her closest family members do not. And that’s what the real tragedy is about.
In the very next stanza the narrator sings casually about how her brother and Becky Thompson get married and buy a store in Tupelo. And then, in an almost off-hand manner, the narrator describes how:
There was a virus goin’ round and Papa caught it and he died last Spring.
And now Mama doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything.
In an almost “turn about is fair play” callousness, the recent death of her own father elicits an observation no more heart felt than her subsequent observation that her mother seems to have lost her enthusiasm for activities which she, presumably was once interested, echoing the detachment her father, in turn, had expressed about Billie Joe's death. The narrator describes the catastrophic death of her father with the same consternation one might have in noticing that after losing a pie contest her mother was no longer interested in making pies or equivalent to the loss of the family pooch. Her comment echos her father’s off-hand petty insult upon learning of Billie Joe's death, that Billie Joe: “…never had a lick of sense.” No sympathy. No serious concern. Just an emotional shrug of the shoulders.
For years I thought the song was about Billie Joe, as do, I suspect, most listeners. It is about death, but not Billie Joe’s. I believe the song is about the silencing of this young woman’s bond with her family. And it is a reflection of the alienation many young people of the last several generations have felt towards their parents and siblings. It is about the isolation manufactured, engendered, and cultivated deliberately by today’s society of institutional education, cliques, social media, and the “generation gap” mentality. It is about the indoctrination of the philosophy that one’s significant others must be anyone but one’s family members, repeated by every TV show, movie and song lyrics since the early ‘60's. From not wanting to be seen dropped off by one’s parents, to the Who’s line in the song titled, appropriately enough “My Generation”: “Hope I die before I get old,” it is a reflection of the media endorsed idea that children are not the parent’s business and children should disdain closeness with their family members.
The Baby Boomers of today have grown up and grown old in a world where family ties are supposed to be weak, transitory and superficial – to be easily replaced with the bar hook-up relationship. And "Ode to Billie Joe" was the early epitaph to this unfolding sociological cataclysm.
How could an entire family not notice this young woman's grief? Or care enough to find out her involvement with Billie Joe? Or want to inquire if indeed it was she who had been up on the bridge tossing something off with Billie Joe? And why was she so visibly shaken at the news of his death? No one inquires. No one seems to even care.
Yet the narrator’s response to Billie Joe’s death reflects her mother’s reaction to her father’s death. Instead of finding uplifting comfort within a familial embrace, they both sink into apathy and depression.
Mama doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything.
And me I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge, and throw them into the muddy waters off the Tallahatchie Bridge………………
No one seeks consolation or comfort from the other. The brother moves away. The mother withdraws. The narrator isolates herself.
But this is not a new idea, only one newly re-discovered. Herman Raucher, author of the screenplay for the earlier mentioned movie, Ode to Billie Joe, had interviewed Gentry as part of his research. Gentry stated that the real theme of the song was indifference.
If you watch the video of Bobby Gentry performing this song on the Smothers Brothers Show when the song first came out in 1967, this becomes visually evident. Gentry plays alone with a guitar and in the background, around a table, sits a family of…mannikins. It is a creepy but apropos image.
As a homeschool mom who is profoundly grateful for the Providence with which we were blessed to raise our children with their siblings as their primary friends, who never took “nothing” as an answer to the question “What’s wrong?” and whose husband insisted that all dinners were mandatory attendance for all family members, this is a bullet we dodged by the Grace of God.
The failure of the ‘60's generation society to nuture the family unit has a lot to answer for. Obtusely placed blinders when it comes to staying in tune with one’s children is one of those debts.
I pray God your children never experience the kind of trauma Gentry describes. But they will inevitably experience some kind of trauma. Be sure you notice.
SHORT TAKE: The light mood, the clever story, the genuineness of Tom Holland, and the mesmerizing acting skills of Michael Keaton make this the perfect Spiderman movie – at last. SWING – don’t just walk – to go see this terrific installment into the super hero genre.
Well, they finally got it right. Took them three tries but Tom Holland is the perfect web swinger. Far far better than the angst and guilt ridden weepy Toby McGuire. And Andrew Garfield was simply miscast. Too mature for the part, Garfield was to Spidey what Eric Stolz was to Back to the Future – not bad in and of himself but just wrong for the part. Garfield was brilliant in the historical drama Hacksaw Ridge but a massive damper to what was supposed to be a comic book super hero movie.
Holland’s Peter Parker is a kid, fresh faced, eager, innocent, and smart. The kind of young man you’d want to ask your daughter to the prom. He commits acts of casual kindness without thinking about it just because he couldn’t imagine behaving any other way.
It’s tough to write a blog for a movie you really like because you’re just DYING to tell spoilers but you know you can’t. But I will say this movie is a major success for the same reason Wonder Woman was – it harkens back to the wide-eyed, principled, truth-justice-and the American Way hero that Christopher Reeves personified in Superman (1978).
I will be careful to not give anything away because I want you to see this movie, but think of a kid – a really nice kid – who just happens to have super powers, who has a rich genius for a sponsor, and what could happen as a result, and you get the idea of the direction the plot will go.
Robert Downey Jr. does a great job of being Tony Stark – the favorite and somewhat indulgent uncle figure – but is only icing on this cake and neither steals the show nor upstages his eager young space cadet. Peter’s friend Ned is simply adorable as played by Jacob Batalon. Both he and Holland plays KIDS – not cynical adults pretending to be children, but like your favorites of your kids’ friends. Marisa Tomei does a good job as a far younger Aunt May – and as I heard one Youtuber note it IS AUNT May NOT GRANNY May, so —- why not? There are a number of small parts and cameos I will not give away. And I will not likely ever think of anyone else as Spiderman than Holland. He has made Spiderman his own.
But you know it’s a good movie when you even like the villain. I must give MASSIVE kudos to Michael Keaton. Creating the initial tone in the Batman that became Dark Knight, then his amazing turn as the psychotic (or superpowered???) Birdman. Now he dips into the same flighted super powered well a third time as the similarly titled Vulture. Only, like Mary Poppins who could pour three times out of the same medicine bottle and get three entirely different flavors of delicious syrup, Michael Keaton has managed, over the last 28 years, to ladle from the same source three completely different brilliant memorable and distinct personas. It is a testament to his performance that you like this guy against your will and have to force yourself to root more for Parker than for him.
The colors and tones of the movie are bright and comic book-like, and the humor is genuine and comes from the art of being a normal teenaged boy.
But the true hero in Spiderman: Homecoming is the fact that FINALLY some of the super hero movies are going back to their roots. The ones that do seem to be now the only mainstream movie media lionizing, espousing and advocating for true virtue in their main characters. And this is why the ideal-starved audiences are voting with their paychecks and rightly making these movies blockbusters.
Here comes the Spiderman – long may he swing.
P.S. With the tragic and untimely passing of Anton Yelchin, I can not help but wonder if Holland could, perhaps, step into the shoes Yelchin left so sadly empty and take over the parts of both Star Trek’s ernest and steadfast Ensign Chekov and Koontz’ melancholic and innocent psychic Odd Thomas that Yelchin had filled so beautifully.