Dunkirk (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 6; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

He reached down from on high, he took me;
he drew me out of mighty waters.

 He delivered me from my strong enemy,
and from those who hated me;
for they were too mighty for me.

Psalm 18:16-17

Soldiers have a long & dangerous wait before their rescue.                (c) Warner Brothers

For the British, French, and Belgian troops stranded on Dunkirk’s beach from May 26- June 04, 1940, the period covered by writer/director Christopher Nolan’s film, the Nazis were indeed “my strong enemy.” Hitler’s blitzkrieg, quickly conquering Holland, Belgium, and most of France, seemed unstoppable. The British Expeditionary Force, along with thousands of soldiers of its allies, had been pushed back into the tiny pocket around the port of Dunkirk—over 400,000 troops seemed on the verge of death or capture. If this happened, the British Isles themselves would become easy prey for Hitler’s army. The encircled port had but one quay to service deep-water ships, and the Brits had just a few Spitfires and Hurricanes to fight against the massive German fleet of planes and U-Boats, and so the situation looked hopeless.

Nolan divides the coverage of his film into three parts, Land, Sea, and Air. On land, we follow Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British soldier fleeing gunfire through the besieged village and out onto the beach, where he teams up with two other men among the thousands of other soldiers standing in long lines. We also see the Royal Navy Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) in charge of the evacuation. Staring across the English Channel, he mutters longingly, “You can practically see it.” “It” is “home.” So close, yet so far away,

In the air a pair of Royal Air Force pilots, Collins and Farrier (Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy) duel with a number of Nazi fighters and bombers, downing several, to the relief and cheers of the trapped men below. The time of this segment reads “One hour” because that is the length of time that their gasoline allows them to stay aloft.

On the sea, a yachtsman named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) sets off with his teenage son George and the latter’s friend toward the distant shore. His is part of a flotilla of over 700 civilian boats called forth to join the war ships. The smaller boats can more easily sail close to the beach than the large ships. The Germans sank many of the boats, and it is a survivor from one such that Dawson rescues. The fearful, shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) tries to make Dawson turn back, resulting in tragedy, but not preventing the skipper from sailing on to complete his rescue mission.

The cross-cutting between the many scenes add to the feeling of chaos and suspense, and the huge Imax screen engulfs us so that at times we feel as if we are participants. (This is definitely NOT a film to watch on an iPhone or computer screen!) The suspense is very great—besides the struggle on the yacht with the deranged soldier there is a scene in which a Spitfire pilot ditches into the sea but cannot get his cockpit to open as the water rises. In another, Tommy and some fellow soldiers find refuge in an abandoned boat further up the coast but apparently are spotted by German soldiers (whom we never see), the latter firing random bullets into the hull. This causes so many large holes that when high tide rushes in, the trapped soldiers are in danger of drowning. In still another, German Stukas dive-bomb and strafe the beach, hitting a clearly-marked hospital ship.

Nolan provides just a hint of the evacuation’s big picture, with just a few lines introducing the film reporting the number of men trapped and their danger. By concentrating on the experiences of individuals, Nolan intensifies the feelings of terror and exhilaration felt by the participants. Rescuing over 330,000 soldiers to fight on was very much a “miracle” when considering the array of forces seeking to crush them. One article I’ve read said that this was several times more than the British leaders had dared hope to bring back.

Concluding with one of the Brits reading a newspaper account of PM Churchill’s June 4th “We will fight” speech, the film provides a visual parable of courage and pluck. Although Bob Dylan’s anti-Vietnam War song “With God on Our Side” cautions us not to claim too much during wartime, I think it is safe to say that God was indeed in 1940 on the side of those brave men waiting on the beach. Often called “The Miracle of Dunkirk,” the evacuation of so many troops could be seen as the British 20th century equivalent to the miracle recorded in Exodus, the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea just ahead of Pharaoh’s army bent on their annihilation. The Brits just got their feet wetter.


Note: The recently reviewed Their Finest Hour is worth watching, the fictional film being about a British war-time crew making a propaganda film about the evacuation.

This review with a set of questions will be in the August 2017 issue of VP.

Wonder Woman (2017)

Rated. Running time: 2 hours 21 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Psalm 82:3-4

Diana’s bullet-repelling gauntlets enable her even to attack the German machine gun nests that have stopped the Allied troops so often.                    (c) Warner Brothers

Although I am not a keen fan of the superhero genre, I do welcome this new addition because it provides our daughters with a worthy role model, even though the film still embraces power and violence.

The film opens with a present-day prologue in which Diana Prince (Gal Gadot, aka Wonder Woman) is at her office in the Louvre when a Wayne Enterprises truck delivers a package to her. Opening it, she stares at a picture taken a hundred years ago. It shows Wonder Woman, sword in hand, standing during four armed men, a Turk, a handsome young man, a hatted Native American, and a kilt-clad Scotsman. In the background are buildings of a French village and a large WW 1 tank. It will be a while before we learn the men’s identities as the faithful and courageous companions of Wonder Woman.

The old photograph takes the viewers back in time to Diana’s youth on the island of Themyscira, shrouded by mist and some type of field shielding it from the scrutiny of the outside world. Here lives the race of Amazons, presided over by Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and the regent’s sister, Antiope (Robin Wright). The latter is trainer whom little Diana longs to join, but she is held back by her mother. The girl persists through the years, Hippolyta eventually giving in because her sister tells her they must be ready when and if they have to face outside forces threatening the peace of their island. She tells Antiope to press her harder than she has anyone else, which she does. Diana proves to be the best of the warriors, eventually able to stand up to the onslaughts of her mentor during their arduous training sessions.

The outside world does impinge on the Amazons when a WW 2 fighter plane crashes into the sea, and Diana swims out to rescue the unconscious pilot. Soon a boat load of armed Germans land on the beach. The ensuing battle is a fierce one. As skilled as they are with their bows and arrows and acrobatic flights, many of the Amazons are nonetheless cut down by the German guns, including Antiope. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), recovering from his near-drowning, also fights along with the Amazons, and after the Germans are killed, explains that a World War is raging in the outside world. In Europe the Allies and Germans are about to sign an armistice, but there is a German general and a scientist who have developed a super weapon, a deadly gas, that they plan to release on the front lines. Millions of soldiers on both sides would be killed, but the plotters do not care if it would prevent the signing of the armistice so that they can continue the war, one which they could win with the new weapon.

Diana, of course, agrees to go into the world with Steve to use her skills and power for the triumph of right. Like young Arthur of the old legend, she goes to the shrine and extracts the marvelous sword awaiting her use and picks up the shield that will protect her body and a glowing lasso that forces anyone wrapped in it to tell the truth. She also possesses a pair of gauntlets with which she can deflect bullets. There follows lots of action-packed sequences in which our favorite Amazon lives up to the expectations of her deceased mentor and Queen Mother, her highly honed skills aided by her shield, lasso and bullet-repelling gauntlets. (Though her charge of the German trenches, during which she deflects what must have been thousands of bullets from the machine guns pointed at her from all along the line, is a bit beyond believable, but hey, this is basically an animated comic book.)

The script, mainly by Allan Heinberg, includes many humorous sequences, such as the one in the boat in which Diana and Steve set sail from. (And note that a woman, Patty Jenkins s the director!) The two exchange information about each other and are uncomfortable concerning sleeping arrangements. Steve asks, “Have you never met a man before? What about your father?” “I have no father. I was brought to life by Zeus.” Well that’s neat. Reaching London, Steve introduces his companion to Etta, who tells Diana, “I’m Steve Trevor’s secretary.” Diana asks, “What is a secretary?” and Etta replies, “I go where he tells me to go, I do what he tells me to do.” Diana comments, “Where we come from, that’s called slavery.” And Etta replies, “I like her!” (Actress Lucy Davis is a real scene stealer—let’s hope she signs on to the inevitable sequels!)

All the cast members are excellent, with Gal Gadot proving a worthy successor to the beloved Lynda Carter, star of the TV series in the 70s. Chris Pine makes us care for Diana’s companion and love-interest, so that when he sets out on his courageous mission to save the lives of others, we are truly moved by the result—especially because he has left Diana his watch, saying to her, “I wish we had more time together. I love you.”

My main criticism is that the script follows the Allied propaganda practice of WW 1 by depicting all of the German characters as brutish thugs willing to destroy villages and their civilians for their own ends, but then, this is a comic book adaptation, a genre known for painting its villains in the darkest of colors. The General is especially a cardboard character, but his cohort, the scientist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) is a bit more complex, she with her destroyed face partially covered by a mask. I would have liked to have learned a bit more of her past and motivations.

If the scripts of the sequels are as good as this one, we will be in for a real treat as we again watch a woman take the lead in saving the world. And who, despite her physical powers, has her heart in the right place when she says, “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.”

This review with a set of questions will be in the June 2017 issue of VP. Please help keep this site going by purchasing an issue of the journal or subscribing to it.


Sarah’s Key (2011)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.
Our Ratings: V-4 ;L -1 ; S/N –1.

I am utterly spent and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
Psalm 38:8

A wall of Jewish children’s pictures forms the background at the center where journalist Julia Jarmond searches for information about Sarah.

© 2011 The Weinstein Company

Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s poignant story of unintended consequences and debilitating guilt and sorrow moves back and forth between the 21st century and Paris under the control of the Nazis. Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is researching a story about the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in 1942. This round up of over 13,000 Jews in the city was conducted not by the Nazis, but by the French police and army. Collaborating with their occupiers, they took them to a stadium, and then deported all the adults to Auschwitz. During her research, Julia learns that in 1942 her French husband’s parents had bought an apartment forcibly vacated by a Jewish family. This raises the question about whether or not they were personally involved in the event.

The key in the title refers to the one that a ten year-old Jewish girl named Sarah (Melusine Mayance) kept with her after hiding her little brother in a cupboard to keep him safe from the Germans who were breaking into their apartment. Her intention to return is thwarted by their arrest and deportation, and her anguish stems from the knowledge that her brother will keep his promise not to call out or try to leave before she returns. Will she be able to return in time to free him?

With flashbacks to wartime Paris and the present the film follows the life of Sarah and Julia. The latter becomes obsessed with discovering the facts about the Jewish girl, whereas the life of the former turns out to be full of anguish and regret. Well produced and acted, this tale suggests that at times those who survive a great tragedy are as much to be pitied as those who perished. Sarah and the psalmist share the same feeling of God-forsaken anguish.

Note: Discussion questions are available with this review for those subscribing to the Visual Parables journal. The journal also includes many extras–book reviews, the use of films for church seasons, a lectionary related column, and more. Hundreds of old reviews are also available in the subscribers; section. Check out the sample issue.