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Movie review: 'Dunkirk'

“Wars are not won by evacuations," British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously observed. As writer-director Christopher Nolan's compelling historical drama "Dunkirk" (Warner Bros.) demonstrates, however, fine films can be made about them.
 
May and June 1940 were indeed, in Mel Brooks' sarcastic phrase, "Springtime for Hitler." Using blitzkrieg tactics and a surprise attack through the supposedly impassible Ardennes Forest, his forces rapidly defeated and encircled the British Expeditionary Force and its French allies. Eventually hundreds of thousands of troops were left trapped in a small pocket centered on the English Channel port of the title.
 
Though the Fuhrer called a halt on the land assault and assigned the Luftwaffe the task of finishing off the Allies from the air, the prospects for Britain remained dire. Were the vast bulk of its army to be taken prisoner in France, the outlook for defending against a Nazi invasion of Britain itself would be virtually hopeless.
 
In picking up the story at this point, Nolan takes an Everyman's view of the situation. Dividing the action into events on land, sea and air, he apportions story lines among an ensemble cast, with sometimes confusing and dramatically diffuse results.
 
Representing the cornered forces on the beach is a trio of ordinary soldiers, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles). Among the few officers portrayed in the film are the senior naval representative on the scene, Cmdr. Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and his army counterpart, Col. Winnant (James D'Arcy).
 
Embodying the many hundreds of British seafaring civilians who answered the call for fishing and pleasure craft to join in the rescue is small yacht owner Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance). Dawson is accompanied by his teen son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and by Peter's equally youthful friend, George (Barry Keoghan).
 
In the middle of the channel, they rescue an unnamed soldier, played by Cillian Murphy, whose shell-shocked condition and frantic determination not to return, however temporarily, to Dunkirk pose a fresh and distracting challenge for them, with ultimately grim results.
 
Up in the skies, a duo of RAF Spitfire pilots -- Collins (Jack Lowden) and his higher-ranking comrade, Farrier (Tom Hardy) -- battle the German fighters and bombers seeking to wreak havoc on both the hapless soldiers and the shipping below.
 
The perils of the desperate, against-the-odds operation are fully exploited for dramatic tension, with near-death experiences awaiting almost every character. The measures resorted to by some of them in their efforts to survive seem questionable -- at least as viewed from a comfortable theater seat.
 
Yet these ethical lapses are balanced by a general sense of heroic pluck and by incidents in which humane justice and generosity of spirit are upheld. The altruism motivating Dawson and others to risk life and limb for the sake of strangers also elevates the moral tone.
 
While "Dunkirk" is not for the fainthearted of any age, the movie's educational value and relative freedom from objectionable content makes it probably acceptable for older teens.
 
The film contains intense, stylized combat violence, brief gore, a couple of uses of profanity and at least one instance each of rough, crude and crass language.
 
The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
 
 
  • Published in Reviews

This year marks 75th anniversary of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
 
"Our beloved country is at war. Our peaceful shores have been ruthlessly attacked, and all citizens are called upon to unite their efforts toward that peace for which we have all prayed, that peace which the world cannot give, and that peace which God will surely bring about when mankind has seen its folly and conforms its ways to his."
 
Those are the opening words of the front-page editorial of The Catholic Herald, the publication of the Diocese of Honolulu, published Dec. 11, 1941, four days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
 
The smallest of editions, a single tabloid sheet printed front and back, the newspaper was a somber reassurance of the faith, resolve and patriotism of Hawaii's Catholics.
 
"Our duty is clearly marked out," the editorial continued, "and will be faithfully executed. The pages of history proclaim the love and loyalty of Catholics for their fatherland in time of war as well as in time of peace. Catholics have been in the front lines at every battle in the history of our nation. And every wartime president from Washington down to our own beloved President (Franklin) Roosevelt has sung their praises.
 
"Difficult times may be ahead. But we are ready to face them. There may be many things which others would call sacrifices. But our leader has reminded us that for us they are not sacrifices, but rather privileges. We shall consider them as such, and take them in our stride."
 
At the time of the attack, the diocese was only three months old. The newly installed Bishop James J. Sweeney was in California at the time, stranded with all commercial travel on hold, following his attendance at the annual U.S. bishops' meeting in Washington. He was able to find a berth on the first troop transport ship to the islands and immediately took a role as chaplain, counselor and confessor for men headed for the battlefield.
 
It may have been providence that Bishop Sweeney was away because the one news story in that post-attack edition reported that his home on the slopes of Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu, about eight miles from Pearl Harbor, had been "bombed."
 
"The home of His Excellency Bishop Sweeney on Thurston Street was considerably damaged when bombs struck the Spencer Street entrance and destroyed the stairway leading to the second floor," the story said. "The house was unoccupied at the time."
 
Later, it was speculated that the "bombs" were probably American anti-aircraft fire.
The story further reported that "several narrow escapes were reported by various pastors, but no serious losses."
 
It also said that "St. Stephen's Seminary in upper Kalihi Valley suffered some damage as a result of a bomb which fell quite close to the building, shattering windows and breaking a water pipe. No one was injured, and the students have returned to their families until the government order affecting schools is lifted. The seminary building will probably be taken over by army authorities temporarily."
 
Oddly -- or perhaps not, considering the large number of Hawaii residents of Japanese ancestry -- the Catholic Herald never named the attacking country.
 
The unsigned front-page editorial, framed by a drawing of a man and woman gazing upward at a flying American flag, pledged prayers and the resolute cooperation of the Church for the still unknown sacrifices ahead.
 
"Already our Catholic institutions are bee hives of activity. Our hospital is equipped. Our schools and halls are at the disposition of those who need them. Our sisters are ready, as ever, to lend the helping hand, to suffering wherever it may be. Our priests are striving to assist their confreres the noble chaplains of our armed forces. Everyone is anxious to render as much assistance as is humanly possible.
 
"Thank God for our good Catholic people also who realize that we must not only work for peace, but must continue, nay redouble our prayers and self-denials. The kingdom of Heaven is said in holy Scripture to suffer violence, and we are reminded that it is the violent who bear it away. So we shall storm the heavens with our prayers while we do everything possible in the realm of material things to bring about what we all desire: Peace on earth to men of good will.
 
"God grant that the trying times through which we are passing may be shortened. May the Lord hear our prayers and hasten to our aid. And meanwhile, let us carry on courageously, united for God and country."
  • Published in World
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