The aftermath of the Battle of Dunkirk is one of the great stories of courage and resourcefulness from all of World War II, and indeed from all human history. Between May 26 and June 4, 1940, nearly 340,000 troops—British, French, Polish, Belgian and Dutch—were evacuated from certain death or capture from the small French coastal town of Dunkirk, the site of a crushing military defeat for the Allies. The British and Canadian naval vessels available at the time were hopelessly inadequate for the rescue, so every possible type of craft—merchant vessels, tugboats, fishing trawlers, yachts, pleasure craft, rowboats—crossed the English Channel to save the stranded soldiers.
2017 has already seen one film concerned with Dunkirk—Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest, about a British propaganda film unit in 1940 assigned to make a movie about the heroism of the Dunkirk rescuers. That was a good movie, and so is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which portrays the heroism of both the rescuers and the rescued in a style that is swift, suspenseful, and persuasive.
Only 106 minutes long, Dunkirk begins with a young soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) fleeing German snipers in the town of Dunkirk for the relative safety of the beach. There he joins hundreds of thousands of other soldiers hunkering down in the agonizing wait for transport while their commanders (Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy) strive desperately to obtain an adequate number of boats.
RAF flyers (played by Tom Hardy and others) patrol the Channel, taking incredible risks in a kill-or-be-killed aerial battle with Nazi war planes strafing the soldiers on the beach and the rescuers in their boats. As for the rescuers, Nolan concentrates on one in particular—Dawson, (Mark Rylance), a weekend sailor piloting his little cabin cruiser with the help of his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s school friend George (Barry Keoghan). The three end up facing danger they didn’t count on, in the person of a shell-shocked soldier they pull from the water (Cillian Murphy).
At first I was disappointed in Dunkirk,and I had a hard time figuring out why. It is certainly beautifully made, with scenes of suspense—especially one of British soldiers stranded in the hold of a sinking ship while Germans shoot holes in the side for sport—that stand up to any ever filmed. Nolan deserves to take a bow, as do cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, editor Lee Smith, production designer Nathan Crowley and an enormous list of art, sound and special effects experts.
Dunkirk, however, is radically different from other war films. It took me a while to recognize just how different it is. It contains no scenes of the High Command, or even many conversations between the soldiers. It is about survival, and what must be done to survive—nothing more. Except for Rylance, none of the actors gets a chance to stand out, and this is deliberate. These were hundreds of thousands of men in a life-or-death situation, and that is Nolan’s focus. He doesn’t have time to linger on individuals, any more than the commanders or the civilian rescuers did.
But by focusing on the rescue itself, Nolan has made an exciting film on its face, and one that resonates strongly today. The selflessness of Houston residents helping each other during Hurricane Harvey, and of Floridians coming to each other’s aid during Hurricane Irma, can be compared with the rescuers of Dunkirk; so can the flotilla of private and public boats, organized by the U.S. Coast Guard, which saved more than 500,000 people trapped on the southern end of Manhattan during 9/11. If I didn’t quite get Dunkirk at first, the fault was not with Nolan, but with me.
Even noting this, we must note something else: just as the Dunkirk flotilla did not end World War II, so the bravery of Houstonians, Floridians and Puerto Ricans will not end their current suffering. They will still need help, for many months to come.
A more intimate but equally terrifying siege is portrayed in Wind River, the new film by director-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. It portrays a group of people the U.S. government has basically never helped at all.
The Wind River Indian Reservation is an actual place in west-central Wyoming, developed in 1868 for the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho. Like many reservations, it is afflicted by poverty, high unemployment, and drugs. According to Sheridan’s screenplay, it is definitely not a place where law enforcement is held in high esteem.
“This is not a ‘call for backup’ kind of place,” Wind River police chief Ben (Graham Greene) tells rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). “It’s a ‘you’re on your own’ kind of place.”
Banner has come to Wind River to help investigate the death of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille), the teenage daughter of Martin Hanson (Gil Birmingham). Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner), the reservation’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent and one of its few white residents, found Natalie’s frozen, barefoot corpse in subzero weather in a field several miles from any habitation.
Lambert, who knows Wind River better than anyone, aids Banner in her investigation. This leads to Natalie’s druggie brother Chip (Martin Sensmeier) as well to as a group of oil well security guards who collectively are the best argument ever devised against the Second Amendment.
Lambert—whose own half-Indian daughter died under mysterious circumstances a few years earlier—clearly is working through his own sense of guilt in investigating Natalie’s death. Meanwhile, he and Banner make many other disquieting discoveries, including a second corpse in the snow—this one male, nude, and half-eaten by the reservation’s wildlife.
Sheridan’s previous screenplay was for David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water. Between that film and Wind River, Sheridan can justifiably be said to have reinvented the movie Western in (it sounds pretentious, but here goes) a new, fresh and relevant way.
I regard Hell or High Water as the best American film of the past several years, a period which presented such other contenders as Boyhood, Moonlight, Spotlight and Manchester by the Sea. Wind River isn’t quite in the same league as Hell or High Water, but it is still a solid thriller with excellent actors playing interesting, carefully shaded characters.
The plight of modern Native Americans—a major subtext in Hell or High Water—is the primary concern of Wind River. In Sheridan’s screenplay, the patronizing neglect of the federal government leaves modern Indians to fend for themselves on their own dangerous frontier. The tragedy this causes is obvious. (In a final, bleak epigraph, the movie tells us that the U.S. government does not keep statistics on missing Native American women—the only group in American society for whom that is so.)
Jane Banner as written is a little too naÃ¯ve to be believable, but she serves her purpose of presenting white people’s incomprehension of the problems faced by Native Americans. For their own part, the residents of Wind River suffer from a sense of disassociation from their heritage. (At one point, Martin paints his face to express his grief over his daughter’s death; he explains to Lambert that he just made up the design.)
All the actors are praiseworthy, especially Renner, who ranks with Tommy Lee Jones, Mark Rylance and Russell Crowe as one of the great minimalists working on screen today. His Lambert is a man living between two cultures, seeing both for what they are but not wholly part of either. At the beginning, we see him shooting wolves that threaten the reservation’s sheep. This is a totally apt metaphor for his role in the story, especially its resolution.
Wind River is graced with breathtaking photography by Ben Richardson and by a wonderful score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who also composed the music for Hell or High Water. Contemporary in setting and style, yet strongly linked to the mythos of the American West, Wind River is the latest film to attest to Faulkner’s dictum: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”