Yesterday, I finally had a chance to see the movie “Dunkirk.” My son Jack had already seen the film but liked it enough to go back with me. As a military history buff, you can imagine my reaction: I loved it. It captured the dire acts of survival on that beach and in those ships while under constant air and ground attack. Yet, despite overwhelming critical acclaim, some have objected that the film was too white and too male. Mehera Bonner of Marie Claire magazine objected that “Dunkirk felt like an excuse for men to celebrate maleness — which apparently they don’t get to do enough.”
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.
It probably should not come as much a surprise that Bonner did not like the film given her personal description at the magazine: “Brooklyn-dwelling Entertainment editor with a love for Twin Peaks, 90s teen romances, and movies about summer.”
The funny thing is that (speaking as someone who constantly watched military and cowboy films to the irritation of my family) Dunkirk was the least likely to be denounced as “an excuse for men to celebrate maleness.” The film showed men terrified and crying in the heat of the battle. This was not macho John Wayne film (which I admit loving), but a film showing men displaying the full range of emotional responses from unrestrained panic to unbrittled courage to impenetrable shock. Even Winston Churchill’s response to the evacuation dismissed efforts to over sensationalize the moment: “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”
It would have been difficult to insert many female roles in the film, though Christopher Nolan succeeded on the margins. There were obviously not many women on that beach. In the end, 338,226 soldiers were rescued by over 800 boats.
I understand that this perspective will be dismissed by Bonner as another “random man will come up to you after and explain why you’re wrong for disliking it.” What is most striking is not just the hostility toward the film but the hostility toward men reflected in the review. There may be readers at Marie Claire who like this type of bashing of men but it is a cheap and rather sophomoric angle. The problem with defining your writing by your gender is that you can easily fall into patterns of formulaic identity critiques. A film about incredible courage and struggle can take on a more sexist meaning when viewed through the lens of gender. The irony is that Dunkirk was not about combat but a type of nonviolent courage as average people took their small boats into a combat zone to rescue strangers. Unfortunately, to see that you have to look beyond the gender of the actors.