On the op-ed page of today’s Wall Street Journal, the usually excellent Dorothy Rabinowitz offers a critical assessment of Christopher Nolan’s new film “Dunkirk,” in particular lamenting the fact that Winston Churchill does not appear in any scene.
“Dunkirk,” opening in theaters Friday, is noteworthy in many respects. Not least for its creator’s decision—on the interesting ground that it would make things clearer for audiences—to avoid any appearance of Churchill. Of, that is, the newly appointed prime minister central to this story: the voice of that embattled Britain whose citizens, answering their government’s call, set out to rescue its army, stranded on the beaches of northern France in May of 1940.
… It’s possible of course that a director less apprehensive about appearing old-fashioned might have risked an actual clip of the prime minister without undue harm to the audience.
In the bleak days of 1940, Churchill told his cabinet: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking on his own blood on the ground.” If Batman ever said anything remotely as interesting, he’d have our devoted attention.
Rabinowitz has seen the film and I haven’t, so maybe she’s right that Churchill’s absence feels strange, off-putting, or feels like a glaring omission. But let me offer one possible defense of Nolan’s decision.
In June, Churchill, starring Brian Cox as the title character, was released in theaters. In November, Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman as the prime minister, will be released. That’s two Churchill biopics hitting theaters within a few months, and the trailer for Darkest Hour suggests the Dunkirk evacuation is a significant plot point. This isn’t counting 2016’s Churchill’s Secret, where Michael Gambon played the prime minister, 2009’s Into the Storm, where Brendan Gleeson played Churchill, or Albert Finney portrayal of him in 2002’s The Gathering Storm. At one point, Kevin Spacey was attached to another biography film about Churchill entitled Captain of the Gate.
In other words, the types of audiences most interested in watching a World War II drama have seen a lot of distinguished actors play Churchill lately, and perhaps Nolan found that ground too well-trod cinematically to offer anything new.