Why ‘Dunkirk’ is the Best Film of 2017

Let us begin at the end of the beginning: “Dunkirk” is the best film of 2017. It is an epic war movie, where names are neither memorable nor necessary because the scenes are unforgettable. And the suspense is almost unbearable, as the story is more about psychological terror than physical turmoil. The terror of aloneness. The terror of bombardment from air, land, and sea. The terror of abject failure, as the enemy attempts to destroy Europe’s only hope for freedom and drown England’s only chance to remain free. The terror of watching this epic unfold in record time (106 minutes), without having to hear the voice of Hitler or the shouting of the Nazi Hun.

“Dunkirk” uses minimalism to maximum effect. It shows us how inconsequential man is in the face of nature, while it proves how consequential men can be when they face—and overcome—the worst of human nature.

It shows us the actor Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier clinging to the propeller of a torpedoed ship, where each blade is as brown—and dead—as the petals of the biggest flower. He is a speck in the flotsam of the English Channel, impotent before the laws of physics and immobile before this unlawful attack of Nazi aggression. He is inseparable from that flower, which symbolizes his all-but-inevitable burial at sea. The terror of the sea is not its turbulence, but its totality: a seemingly endless expanse of water, unfit to drink and unrelenting in its drive to down whatever touches the surface.

Murphy is a tragic figure, as much a sign of God’s wrath as he is a reminder of what happens when men violate—and mock—the warnings of a prophet. That prophet is Winston Churchill. He speaks to us through Tommy, the everyman’s name of the British soldier from the Great War, when the boy reads the words of England’s greatest leader.

He reads them aloud, hearing for the first time what the audience listens to as the film’s final words; that “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Restraint strengthens those words, creating in every English breast “a soul beneath the ribs of death.” The mace of honor fills each soul with the prose of duty, complementing the poetry of Churchill with the bravery of countless civilians. These are the citizens who set sail from the beaches and the landing grounds, so they may rescue the defenders of the realm. They are the defenders for all that Britain is, and all that Britain means.

They are also the defenders of Western Civilization, where many mansions house a common faith in the civic fate of laws, language, literature, and tradition. They are, above all, free men.

There is a steadiness to their approach, save a roar of national pride when the captain of a private boat says to his son’s friend, after hearing a trio of Spitfires zoom overhead: “Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. Sweetest sound you could hear out here.”

Sweeter still is the sound of the pilots in those planes. They economize everything, so they may execute their commands and command the skies against German dive bombers. They do not weaken or tire, not even when they go from three to none; not even when one crashes into the sea and the other, with Tom Hardy at the stick, lands on the beach as the Wehrmacht closes in.

We see more than moments of sheer terror, without the briefest periods of boredom. We see how war punctuates the sight and sound of peace. It screams across the sky, echoing from eight days during World War II to the first eight hours of the War on Terror.

align=”left” Read Ken Masugi’s review of “Dunkirk.” 
What we experience is not entertainment. It is something too primal to endure for too long. It is something too painful for too many to consider. It is the one thing we long to escape, because it is the only thing that belief can nullify and acts of goodwill can neutralize: death.

The choice is between entering the breach and walling up among the dead, because the time will come when we must stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood; when we must disguise our fair nature with hard-favored rage; when we must not dishonor our mothers; when we must attest to the worth of our fathers, and learn to wage war until victory is won.

Victory is never permanent, and peace without freedom must never be the price of victory. What is permanent is sinfulness—and evil. To defeat the latter we must be forever mindful of the former, so we will not be alone, outnumbered and outgunned, but never without hope.

Hope is its own victory. It can deliver us from costly errors and colossal military disasters. It can sustain us during our darkest days, so we may avoid an unbroken night of barbarism.

It is not the cheap rhetoric of the modern politician, whose record lacks moral health and martial vigor; whose legacy lacks distinction; whose sole distinction is the pursuit of power, while he is powerless to stop the most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened and stained the pages of history.

Hope lives on the beaches of Dunkirk.

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38 responses to “Why ‘Dunkirk’ is the Best Film of 2017”

  1. I saw Dunkirk a couple of nights ago and it was not what I thought it would be. I did not see the battle at Dunkirk or any major battle scene. Instead the action took place elsewhere, most at sea. It was like going to see a movie on the Gettysburg but instead one is taken to a distant place in another state where some guys are fighting each other over the issue of the civil war.
    That was disappointing since I have seen so many movies on World War 2 where the action is in the middle of the battle I guess Hollywood did not have the stomach to show a really good movie of one of the few battles where the Germans won decisively.
    The movie was more of a melodrama in the classic sense where the sound effects heightened the emotions and gave the movie that sense of suspension. Great sound effects for it led me to believe that the next scene would be more exiting.
    Considering the plans that Stalin had for Europe which included a wholescale invasion to take over Europe and plant the red flag of Communism all the way to Portugal, this battle was significant.

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  2. I saw the movie last night. Very very disappointing. I am an avid history buff and enjoy cinema. There is not one character I remember outside of the father driving the boat. Actually, as I think more about it, this was a very bad movie. I would not recommend it to anyone.

    • Although, I don’t think the movie is a “very bad” as you say, however, I did find it disjointed. The pieces just didn’t quite match up to make a seamless story. Although, this may be trivial but it typifies the movie. You have the scene where the father and the son along with a young friend leave the pier in England in a small boat and it is daylight. The movie switches to Dunkirk and it is night and back to the channel and the approaching boat and it is daylight and back and forth and back in forth like that.

    • I could have written CMV’s comments word for word. I was a major disappointment to anyone who is a history buff.

  3. I could’t disagree more. Dunkirk was a moral failure. If you didn’t already know who was fighting whom, you would not have learned it from this film. Who are the Germans? Nazis? What Nazis? British… OK, the accents seem familiar. And what about those French, guys? Oh, and why the hell was everyone shooting at each other? We have no idea watching this film. Dunkirk didn’t have the moral stuff to finger the Nazis as the erring party in this battle… whatever it was supposed to be, it was not a great film by any means.

  4. I loved the movie, but this ‘review’ is horrible. Like the writer is in love with his own words more than anything else. If you think it is the best movie of the year convince me of that fact instead of just throwing up a bunch of pretty words.

  5. It may be the best *subject* for a movie, but the film itself was a disappointment.

    It did nothing to display the scope and scale of the actual event.

  6. “Dunkirk” clearly displayed how the Brits won this major WWII battle and set the stage for their eventual triumph, with major help from the USA, over the Germans. Once the Brits successfully regrouped their forces on their well protected island, their superior Navy dismantled the German Navy.

    • Major help from the Russians, Danes, Norwegians, Poles, Canadians, Aussies, and on. and on. Don’t over reach for credit.

      • I’m not at a “bridge too far”. Without the USA in WWII, Germany would still rule Europe and Japan would still rule the Pacific. It was USA’s man power, industrial production and atomic scientists that doomed Germany and Japan. All others played a part because of the USA’s major help.

      • Rubbish. Without the French the Germans would still rule Europe. Likewise the Brits, Canadians, but especially the Russians. ALL were decisive. The Canadians went in in 1939. It took us 2.5 more years to get moving. Americans always take a bit more credit than we deserve.

  7. saw the movie last week…this must’ve been put together by a high school class. It diddn’t convey any of the story other than the desperation of two or three youngsters to leave Dunkirk. A waste of time to watch what could have been an important historical event

  8. Dunkirk was good, yes. Best film of 2017? Ummm, not so sure.

  9. Utterly confusing movie; mostly due to disjointed/ artistic(?) timeline in movie.

    330,000 + allied troops under siege at Dunkirk by 200,000+ German troops; probably only 300 Allied troops seen on beach, not a single German soldier seen on the ground until the end (hard to tell they were actually German, out of focus).

    3000 German aircraft assembled to destroy the Allied troops; 1400 planes available to Allies. Were they all on a European holiday??? only 2-3 planes seen at any one time. Given these numbers, the air over Dunkirk would have been constantly filled with dueling aerial gladiators.

    Roughly 400 German aircraft were shot down over Dunkirk during the 9-10 days of the battle, about 40 a day. Does anyone remember seeing this scale presented in the movie???

    German aircraft (3) bombing and strafing soldiers on beach; yet when the smoke cleared, a half dozen soldiers appeared to have fallen asleep on the beach. No sign of any trauma; and in spite of the huge columns of sand thrown up by the bombing, no bomb craters seen!!!

    No involvement of Winston Churchill; having been just elected Prime Minister, his first hurdle coming to office was this catastrophe. It was Churchill who asked British citizens to take their boats across the channel to save soldiers’ lives, yet nothing in the movie addressed this historic and courageous effort.

    Tom Hardy and his magical plane; out of gas, yet able to maneuver and shoot down one last plane- without losing altitude.

    I rate it as one of the worst movies I have ever seen, at the bottom of my list with “Joe vs the Volcano”, “Urban Cowboy”, and “Gigli”.

    • “Roughly 400 German aircraft were shot down over Dunkirk during the 9-10 days of the battle, about 40 a day. Does anyone remember seeing this scale presented in the movie?”

      One of the Luftwaffe fighters with yellow nose paint that’s supposed to be a Messerschmidt 109 has a huge air scoop. A mock up from a Hurricane or a Typhoon? They couldn’t find a real 109?

  10. Totally agree with the negative comments here, movie sucked. As a lifelong student of WW2, I could have made a more
    coherent film than this

  11. Actually what Dunkirk proved was that virtue signalling(declaring war on Germany over Poland) can lead to catastrophe.

    • It was a disaster for the Germans. Goering wanted the Luftwaffe to get credit so he stopped the Army from pushing the British into the sea allowing Dunkirk to work. It was a poor movie.

  12. BBC did a 4 x 1 hour docu-drama a few years ago, which is excellent. Far outweighs this complete waste of time!!

  13. I agree with CMV. Unfortunately, this will become the history of Dunkirk remembered by our undereducated young adults and children, indoctrinated by their “certificated” teachers. It’s a systematic failure of which Hollywood/films are now a big part of what is remembered. The RAF (in reality) mounted a huge defense of the beach at Dunkirk. British small, civilian boats stretched from the British coast to France (you could almost step from boat-to-boat according to contemporary accounts). Brave and resolute Frenchmen and Britons fought rearguard actions and gave their lives to allow the “miraculous” evacuation of the vast majority of the British army and some of the French. Where it the film does it give this game-changing context? It truly was the difference between a defeated Britain and a victorious one, and made possible only by the actions and context listed above. The shell-shocked and self-absorbed rout pictured in the film illuminates nothing of the history of the occasion and its drama adds nothing to our understanding of human nature. A waste of time.

  14. If one cannot create create great art oneself, he should pray to be at least capable of recognizing such art.

    Apparently, the failure of a director to meet a film goer’s (very specific, genre-based) expectations constitutes the complete derailment of his artistic purpose. “He didn’t make the movie I had hoped to see!” I am baffled that Nolan’s powerfully focused tour-de-force is receiving the kinds of negative comments that are being posted here. Stepping away from the Rambo-style heroics, large, set-piece battles, and giant personalities of great generals and politicians, and bringing the point-of-view down to the ordinary airman, seaman, and soldier, seems to have rendered many incapable of even processing the film. Odd, since we have plenty of the former, and very few of the latter, types of movies.

    Moving. Inspiring. Beautiful. Terrible. It is a great film.

  15. Reviewing events from the German invasion of Western Europe on May
    10, 1940, to the decision of the British government to withdraw its
    forces from the continent, Harmon discovered that the long-held
    assertion that Britain was let down by her French and Belgian allies is a
    myth. Although the Allies outnumbered their German opponents, including
    a superiority in tanks,[2] Hitler’s generals employed innovative
    tactics to subdue their more numerous enemies. On May 22, Churchill’s
    Cabinet decided to retire the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from
    France. Anthony Eden formally ordered the commander of the BEF, General
    Lord Gort, to deceive his Allies about the British Army’s intention to
    retreat. Churchill contributed to the deception by reassuring French
    Premier Reynaud that Britain was firmly committed to victory. Even as
    the British prepared to evacuate, they tried to convince the Belgians to
    continue to fight. The Belgians did remain on the field of battle for
    an additional five days, which delayed the advance of German Army Group B
    toward Dunkirk. As the author points out, “Far from being betrayed by
    their Allies, the British military commanders in France and Belgium
    practiced on them a methodical deception which enabled the British to
    get away with their rear defended.”

    Harmon’s research disclosed that the British were responsible for
    crimes against both German soldiers and Allied civilians. Some British
    troops were supplied with dumdum bullets — lethal missiles expressly
    banned by the Geneva Convention on the rules of war. London issued
    directives to take no prisoners except when they specifically needed
    captive Germans for interrogation. For this reason British Tommies
    feared being captured because “they supposed that the enemy’s orders
    would be the same as their own.” On May 27, 90 prisoners of the Norfolk
    Regiment were killed by members of the SS Totendopf Division and on May
    28, over 80 men of the Warwickshire Regiment were executed by troops of
    the SS Adolf Hitler Regiment. These acts were committed in retaliation
    for the massacre of large numbers of men of the SS Totenkopf Division
    who had surrendered to the British.

    French and Belgian civilians fared little better than the Germans at
    the hands of their British confederates. Looting was common and
    “stealing from civilians soon became official policy.” British military
    authorities executed, without trial, civilians suspected of disloyalty.
    In one instance, reports Harmon, the Grenadier Guards shot 17 suspected
    “fifth columnists” at Helchin. The perpetrators of these war crimes were
    apparently not disciplined or placed on trial, as were German soldiers
    later charged with similar acts.

    The evacuation from Dunkirk, codenamed “Operation Dynamo,” commenced
    on May 26. It was originally hoped that up to 45,000 men might be
    rescued. The actual total came to 338,000 men. Lord Gort was instructed
    not to inform his French and Belgian colleagues that the evacuation was
    beginning. South-east of Dunkirk the British withdrew their units,
    leaving seven French divisions alone to face the advancing Germans. The
    French fought on until their ammunition was exhausted and managed, like
    the Belgians, to tie down German forces that would otherwise have been
    available to assault the perimeter of Dunkirk.

    As British and French troops retired toward Dunkirk, Admiral Sir B.H.
    Ramsay organized the sea lift to England. After the French government
    protested, a written order was issued commanding that French troops be
    embarked in equal numbers with the British. In practice this was not
    carried out. Harmon records that when Frenchmen tried to board boats on
    the beach, Royal Navy shore parties organized squads of soldiers with
    fixed bayonets to keep them back. On at least one occasion a British
    platoon fired on French troops attempting to embark. Only after
    practically all the British had escaped were efforts made to evacuate
    the remaining French soldiers. But when the port surrendered to the
    Germans on June 3, over 40,000 French soldiers were captured.

  16. Mr. Hamilton’s review may not be accurate but I admire its enthusiasm. On the strength of it I ordered a DVD from Amazon so we shall see. To the reviewer I would say: ignore these dyspeptic commenters who do not seem to know the difference between a historical movie and a drama – especially Warner Todd Huston’s. Huston is a professional writer who gets paid by the word and is dead broke. His career has been about as successful as a one legged man in an ass kicking contest.

  17. I’ll say.. Dunkirk probably stood out in 2017… but that reflects more on the dreck of 2017 and modern movies, than any endorsement ( from me ) of that movie. I saw it at theater when it was released. I watched it with a friend who had no knowledge of Dunkirk. He liked the movie… in a action fiction kinda way.. but as I explained to him all the context and reality that was inexplicably left out, he asked me, why didn’t they just make a fictional movie then and leave out the Dunkirk part? That movie was a popcorn ruination… a thematic artistic spasm.. ( we’ll see one day, from three perspectives, men against adversary, but not the Germans ) . Waaaay too convoluted and a HUGE wasted opportunity. There will never, ever, another movie made on Dunkirk. This one will be the one. The 1952 movie is good, but so dated, and it focused on a squad trying to flee France . The story of Dunkirk deserves a gripping movie, that will never be made.

  18. I agree with the original thesis – this was a very good movie and many seem to miss the point. The movie was never intended as a history channel documentary nor as a blow-by-blow primer regarding the historical events leading up to and surrounding the evacuation. Those events and the words and deeds of the famous historical figures associated with it are well documented elsewhere – why rehash all of that – especially when that was not the point of the movie.

    To a Brit (and indeed to anyone from Europe and the Commonwealth countries then fighting alongside the Brits) Dunkirk is a word and an event which represented a turning point in the war – it was the point in the fight where the Nazis have seemingly squashed the face of Britain (at that point the only Euro country still in the fight against the Nazis) into the sand and are contemplating how to dispatch her. All seemed lost. And Dunkirk was a retreat underscoring her precarious position. But rather than defeat it proved to be the point at which ordinary men and women became invested in the war effort and they snatched hope and pride from a disaster and carried that with them until Nazism was finally defeated in 1945.

    So the characters portrayed are not John Wayne war movie demigods. They are cyphers for the ordinary men and women who actually took part. And for me the 3 timelines used as a narrative device makes perfect sense because it is about the experiences of the different groups from their perspective and so time would have been quite different. The dislocating effect, the lack of information, the sense of chaos is precisely what those characters would have experienced. That they are not portrayed as some Hollywood idol single handedly winning the war in typical Hollywood fashion is kind of the point.

    So the movie is made for people who already know some history and understand the British character and the importance of Dunkirk in informing that character. If you were looking for a history lesson read wikipedia. But the movie is full of memorable incident. I will never forget the image of Tom Hardy;s spitfire, out of gas, streaking silently across the sky as the remaining men on the beaches witness this act which is akin to flipping the bird to the Nazis. The message seems to be “We may be defeated today but we will take the fight to you to the very end even though we are overwhelmed and outgunned” and that is what the retreating men on the beach take from it – not a vain futile representation of failure but a searing declaration of defiance and intent. And that is what the people of Britain took from this seeming defeat as well.

    But for me the movie works as an analogy for modern times . It portrays the seemingly hopeless struggle of disparate individuals who represent freedom and western civilization against the relentless destruction of the totalitarian left (ie the National Soclialists (aka Nazis)). Today we find ourselves in a similar “war” where the lovers of liberty and defenders of Judeo-Christian Western civilization face an implacable enemy in the form of the 21st Century version of the totalitarian left where their army is every cultural and political institution, as well as the press, that have been systematically infiltrated and hijacked over the last 30 years.

    And like the seemingly hopeless situation of those retreating in Dunkirk we must, as the author of this piece notes, steel ourselves for the fight to come because, as with WW2, the world is again facing cultural annihilation at the hands of totalitarians. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance and sometimes that means people who are peaceful need to become warlike in order to protect those freedoms.

    • I agree.
      I understood the movie to be very personal view of Dunkirk, where the disjointedness and ordinariness of the people was appropriate.
      But despite that there were heroes in the air and cowards with just human nature and amazing British stoicism in the boat captain and even a Hollywood ending with the civilian boats.

      It was not a history lesson that some critics here wanted – perhaps justifiably if this is the only way our young are going to understand this event.

  19. Leftist Trolls suck, every one knows that, right?

  20. I totally agree. This was a movie worthy of best picture of 2017. I found it profound and coupled with Darkest Hour a moving tribute to the British struggle to overcome impossible odds in the early years of WWll.

  21. I put off seeing Dunkirk all summer, because I was left feeling ‘meh’ by the trailer. Then, last week, the wife and I saw “Darkest Hour” and I have been rethinking my ‘Dunkirk’ decision. I think I saw the Oscar performance by Gary Oldman as Sir Winston, hands down. I THINK the best movie I saw all year was ‘Wind River’ but nobody moved me like Oldman. I never could see the actor inside the man. Churchill came alive. Lady Churchill kicked ass also. [apology…]

  22. Its a great movie. It doesn’t spoon feed, and the action tells the story, not some overblown direction and narration. Minimalism rules.