Dunkirk as an excuse to celebrate maleness


Some have already called it a strong contender for the most stupid tweet on the year

(which is quite a big call), however, I prefer to judge articles on their merit as opposed to a 140-character summary. So here is the gist of Mehera Bonner‘s argument at “Marie Claire”:

But my main issue with Dunkirk is that it’s so clearly designed for men to man-out over. And look, it’s not like I need every movie to have “strong female leads.” Wonder Woman can probably tide me over for at least a year, and I understand that this war was dominated by brave male soldiers. I get that. But the packaging of the film, the general vibe, and the tenor of the people applauding it just screams “men-only”—and specifically seems to cater to a certain type of very pretentious man who would love nothing more than to explain to me why I’m wrong about not liking it. If this movie were a dating profile pic, it would be a swole guy at the gym who also goes to Harvard. If it was a drink it would be Stumptown coffee. If it was one of your friends, it would be the one who starts his sentences with “I get what you’re saying, but…”

I guess congratulations are in order for Nolan managing to unite high-brow male critics and very annoying people on Twitter under a common bromance, but to me, Dunkirk felt like an excuse for men to celebrate maleness—which apparently they don’t get to do enough. Fine, great, go forth, but if Nolan’s entire purpose is breaking the established war movie mold and doing something different—why not make a movie about women in World War II? Or—because I know that will illicit cries of “ugh, not everything has to be about feminism, ugh!”—how about any other marginalized group? These stories shouldn’t be relegated to indie films and Oscar season. It’s up to giant powerhouse directors like Nolan to tell them, which is why Dunkirk feels so basic. It’s a summer war movie. It’ll make you fear for the future and pray that we never fight again. You might get kind of sick. If you’re like me, a random man will come up to you after and explain why you’re wrong for disliking it. But this war movie isn’t special. At the end of the day, it’s like all the rest of them.

I cannot comment on the artistic or cinematic merits of the movie, as I must be the only person alive still not to have seen it. The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, as have been the reactions from friends, except for one somewhat ambivalent one. I suspect that “Dunkirk”, while objectively a good movie, is made to look great by comparison with all the shite that generally hits the movie screens (the sequel to a remake of a movie from a comic based on a theme park ride, and some such).

So even though I don’t have a dog in this fight, I guess I’m still “a certain type of very pretentious man who would love nothing more than to explain to me why I’m wrong about not liking it,” in Ms Bonner’s words. Nevertheless, I will take that risk, so here are a few comments:

1.Once, war movies used to be criticised for glamorising and celebrating war – all that gung-ho, flag-waving stuff about killing the Jerries and the Japs – but since no war movie in a recent history could possibly be mischaracterised like that, I see it’s now trendy to accuse of them of “celebrating maleness” instead, whatever the hell that means. For me it makes as much sense to say about a movie set in convent that it celebrates femininity, i.e. not much. Of course any movie about war, and in particular about combat, will be overwhelmingly male in nature. Unless one portrays all the protagonists as fools, cowards, knaves and psychopaths (as no doubt many “woke” movie-makers would love to), a film about large numbers of men put in dangerous and stressful situations will “celebrate” – i.e. look at – qualities such as honour, courage, responsibility, friendship, loyalty, heroism, sacrifice, endurance, etc. You cannot rewrite it out of history and art no matter how much you might dislike it.

2. We have gone from one extreme, where women and minorities have indeed been largely overlooked in historical writing and historically-inspired art, to another extreme, where everything in history now should be seen through a prism of women and minority experience. Neither approach is balanced, needless to say, or does any favours to accuracy and comprehensivity.

3. The reason why movies like “Dunkirk” supposedly “celebrate maleness” is partly a reflection of history but also partly a commercial one. I like great overlooked war stories as much as the next person – and, for one, believe that the story of the all-Japanese-American 442nd Infantry Regiment, the highest decorated unit in US Army history, still needs to be told – but the simple fact is that war stories about women or minorities are niche stories and simply don’t get enough bums onto theatre seats. Think “The Miracle of Santa Anna” (Spike Lee’s all African-American war movie), “Windtalkers” (Native American code talkers), “Paradise Road” (Australian army nurses), and so on. This is also one of the reasons why we don’t see too many gay or lesbian romantic comedies – there is simply not enough commercial interest. And this is precisely why such stories are “relegated to indie films and Oscar season”.

4. In the end, you can’t please everyone. Nolan seems to have done a good job pleasing a lot of people, except Ms Bonner. If Ms Bonner were to make a war movie, she would no doubt please herself and the staff at “Marie Claire”, but it’s likely most of those pretentious and annoying men she doesn’t like would stay away and the movie would not be a hit. Still, for all that, anti-war and anti-men war movies continue to be made, commercial success be damned, because for the contemporary Hollywood this is their new favourite narrative, from Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War movies to a long succession of anti-Iraq War flops.