We can take any idea of the story we want to be told into the movie Dunkirk. We can see the gaps between that story, which we think is correct, which addressed the points we believe are important. Nolan had a story and a technique for telling his story.
In historic fiction the writer we expect the writer to balance the historical story with their fiction. We see a Hawker Hurrucane and expect a documentary. Movies are fiction.
Nolan unpacked some myths, “where is the bloody RAF?”. He left others in place, like the little boats. Some he played with, like the French Army. Unpacking myths wasn’t his job. He was telling a story with Dunkirk as the background.
It is entirely reasonable that a main character in the movie is essentially mute because he is French and pretending to be English just to get off the beach.
Is this a complete, accurate, balanced representation of French soldiers? French soldiers, who fought on the perimeter to enable the British to evacuate? Is this a complete, accurate, or balanced representation of the French Navy who were active in the evacuation and lost many ships?
The Spitfire pilot at the end isn’t a complete, accurate and balanced representation of the RAF. He not only ignored the reminder at the beginning to watch his fuel and to get back but also chose to land outside the perimeter and be captured. Where is the RAF indeed? Where is their ability to follow orders and make right decisions?
Neither character are historical descriptions. Both are stories. Both are stories that tell what the fiction writer wanted to say.
The fiction writer holds us to the story of two men on the beach. The set of actions they pursued. The movie swirls around their choices. Morally questionable, shady and pure choices. Complex choices.
Their actions end with Churchill reminding them that Dunkirk is important they failed as soldiers. They were needed to redeem their failure. Redeem their failure in fighting that would defeat Nazi Germany. The war was not won by evacuation.
The only option was fighting until victorious.
The fiction writer wanted to tell us a story of the RAF battling against odds, and out of sight. The pilots were prepared to sacrifice themselves for others, most tellingly when he turns into the fight knowing he cannot get home. Then despite this sacrifice, the minesweeper is destroyed.
The fiction writer chooses to tell us the story of civilian engagement and sacrifice. The young boy who follows the example of the rule-breaking elder to do-his-bit. The young boy who loses his life in senseless violence of a man they were saving. The local paper presents the young boy as a hero, who went to do his bit.
To be accurate, balanced & complete the newspaper story should have included the boy was killed as a result of being knocked down by a British soldier who was trying to force the boat to turn back, abandon the rest and only rescue him.
Nolan’s Royal Navy made hard choices about the mole. His fictional RN evacuation commander personally got the last private off the mole. Then he stayed. Stayed to evacuate the French, who by implication, had guarded the British. He showed us the small boats sailing past a destroyer whose decks were filled with men. He showed us the RN putting men aboard small craft they were requisitioning. Men who would sail a ship of unknown maintenance into a war zone. He showed us the RN taking losses and going back in.
Nolan’s story wasn’t a documentary on the Dunkirk evacuation. He wasn’t balanced, accurate or complete. He never meant to be. Nolan didn’t show us the real RN story. The documentary story of lost many ships and evacuated men. Instead, I think he showed us an RN the King could be proud of.
It was, in part, a story of personal sacrifice by those who could be safe. Those who chose to risk, and surrender, their lives for those whose worth of saving, could be questioned.