I couldn’t explain why it’s taken so long to get to watching Dunkirk.
I’m a Christopher Nolan fan but, like every other real-life World War subplot that’s been mined into a feature film of its own, Dunkirk—if done wrong—had ample ground to choke on the weight of its own history and bore anyone to a resigned sense patriotism that falls well short of today’s mark. So it can only be good news that Nolan avoided these pitfalls, managing to re-tell the tale with a brand of epic suspense that he (and his partner-in-crime Hans Zimmer on the soundtrack) have long-since mastered.
Dunkirk is the re-telling of the Allies’ first effort to defend France, only to immediately find themselves outflanked by Nazi Germany and the Axis powers. The event was labelled “a military disaster” in real life, and the film does a good job of portraying ‘home’ (Britain) as being so near, yet so far throughout the film. Kind of like how sporting success has been so near, yet so far away from Roma in all of the club’s entire existence. What, you don’t like my segues?
If a person were inclined to draw parallels between a WWII film and James Pallotta’s re-telling of his time in Rome (that person would be me), then the similarities would jump out right in front of your face.
Warning: Spoilers are ahead. Despite being based on real-life events, Dunkirk has some good payoffs at the end of the film, so you might not want to read before having seen the movie.
James Pallotta as Alex
Where else to begin but with the man, himself?
We’re first introduced to Alex as a man overboard, pulled from the impending wreckage of a sinking ship by the film’s first protagonist, Tommy. Alex quickly cottons onto the fact that his saviours—Tommy and Gibson—are doing whatever they can to break ranks, jump the queue and get on an Allied ship back to England. Alex doesn’t report them to any officers, but instead uses their secret against them when he eventually turns on Gibson in a make-or-break moment later on.
Alex, Tommy and Gibson’s group work themselves into a trap by boarding a fishing boat beached on French land, where they plan to hide below deck and wait for the tide to come in and carry them out. Instead, the plan backfires.
Unseen German forces toy with them off screen, firing single rounds into the boat’s hull and forcing the group to decide on whether they’d like to drown to death, or come back above deck and meet their end by firing squad. It’s at that moment that Alex reveals he’s just not the same level-headed guy under pressure that we once thought him to be.
He grasses out Gibson to the rest of the group, claiming that Gibson hasn’t said a word out loud and accusing Gibson of being a German spy. Alex insists that Gibson should be the one to stick his neck above deck and take a bullet (or several) for the team. Gibson gets a momentary stay of execution as the decision is then taken out of the group’s hands by fate, but Gibson later drowns to death while Alex makes it out of the boat alive.
Alex is stricken by shame, fearing that he and his troops will be greeted with jeers, on their return to England, for having retreated from the frontline.
Instead, Alex is surprised when he’s greeted back home with a hero’s welcome for simply having survived, and encouraged to simply move on and forget about what was a no-win scenario from the start.
Monchi as The Enemy
Christopher Nolan makes the conscious decision to keep any German faces off-screen throughout Dunkirk, stoking up the element of fear for all his characters by surrounding them with unknown, unseen and unnamed forces picking them off from under the sea, above in the air and on ground. There’s no mention of any kind of Nazi-ism, nor Hitler, nor much reference to Germany. Instead, most of the characters are bound in unity by their simple reference to ‘The Enemy.’
It’s one of the oldest binding agents in the book, and one that Pallotta played on when he referred to Monchi as Madonna this past week. It’s also helped by the fact Monchi has refused to comment on anything Roma-related ever since he walked out of Trigoria and made it clear (much like Sabatini before and Petrachi after him) that he doesn’t want anything to do with how he eventually found out Pallotta does business under pressure. But nevermind all that.
Stir up a sense of “this guy is different” or “he must think himself a bit of a fancy Dan, wherever he’s come from” and, boom: You’ve got a common enemy to ostracize together.
Franco Baldini as Gibson
We’re first introduced to Gibson in very ambiguous circumstances. Tommy takes a toilet break on the breach, but stops what he’s doing when he notices complete-stranger Gibson changing his overalls for a dead body’s own, in the near distance. Tommy watches on but eventually helps Gibson bury what Tommy assumes to be his fellow soldier under shallow sands, while Gibson hands Tommy a drink of the dead soldier’s water-flask to seal their newfound, unspoken agreement.
Gibson then reveals himself as crafty, looking for the nearest exit at every turn in case mortal danger should strike just around the corner. All the while, Gibson (whether deliberately or not) manages to strike up the maximum (and avoidable) amount of misunderstanding among the group, by refusing to speak out loud and refusing to explain his own motives.
Finally put with his back against the wall, suspected of being a British deserter on one hand and accused of being a German spy on the other, Gibson surprises everyone by revealing he’s actually French.
Neither too pure nor too malicious intent, Gibson is the blank canvas upon which every other character projects their raw emotion.
Luciano Spalletti as Farrier/Fortis Three
Farrier’s heroics just keep going from climax to even bigger climax throughout the film, where his sense of duty to the cause and execution no know limits. Just when you think Farrier is done being awesome, he goes and commits another act of self-sacrifice that tops the last one.
Farrier suffers a setback almost from minute one of his screen time, as he comes out of a dogfight having successfully shot down the enemy pilots, but losing his fuel gauge under fire. Farrier is then forced to guesstimate how much fuel he has left in the tank, by scrawling the fuel and flight time on his cockpit with a stick of chalk.
For that, you can basically read Spalletti scrawling the amount of game time that was left in Totti’s legs, after over 12 years of being heavily leaned on by Spalletti himself. It’s a masterful piece of thinking on your feet by Farrier/Spalletti, who’s only reward for his sharp thinking is to commit the ultimate act of self-sacrifice at the end credits.
Radja Nainggolan as Farrier’s Final Dogfight
The biggest turn of Dunkirk comes when Farrier is out of fuel, drifting in eerie silence as the movie’s soundtrack cuts out to let Farrier wordlessly scan from above, watching over the troops queued up on the beaches below. Farrier’s eyes don’t give away how he feels about having successfully protected the evacuation effort from Enemy airfire, nor is he given enough time to reflect on it before disaster strikes once more.
There’s a rogue Enemy fighter divebombing from way above 10,000 feet, with a line of Allied bodies just waiting to be gunned down in what looks like easy kill for The Enemy on approach. Even Commander Bolton on shore (played by Kenneth Branagh in Nolan’s version but by Walter Sabatini in ours) finally gives up his bravado, having spent the film trying to raise the morale of the troops with a blend of curiosity and self-deprecation to break across all barriers of class and nationality. That the Commander shuts his eyes and resigns himself to his own fate makes you believe the film is turning towards a very grim end... until Farrier pulls the unbelievable out of the bag.
The RAF hero glides his plane around and manages to gun down The Enemy, once again, with what could only be described as the WWII equivalent of an “RKO out of nowhere.”
The Serie A equivalent would be Luciano Spalletti/Farrier being stripped of all his midfield’s creativity, thanks to the sales of Miralem Pjanic and Seydou Keita in the summer of 2016. Yet Spalletti/Farrier pulled out a rabbit out of the hat by converting Radja Nainggolan to “false trequartista” in a new-look Roma midfield that went onto break club records, if only for one short-lived moment.
Francesco Totti as Farrier’s Plane
Pietro Castellitto may have received Totti’s blessing to do so, but we still feel no mere mortal is fit to retrace the footsteps of Roma’s greatest number 10. So why not let a very animate object do the honours instead?
When Farrier has run out of fuel and STILL shoots down yet another enemy plane to save yet more Allied lives, he runs out of options and is forced to glide his plane to a landing on the enemy-occupied beaches of France. Realising that he’s destined for a life among Germany’s concentration camps long before The Enemy’s rifles surround him on screen, Farrier decides no one else is going to get their hands on his plane.
If anyone going to call time on the plane’s life, it’s going to be Farrier/Spalletti firing a flare gun into the cockpit to set it on fire. Glorious memories be damned.
Javier Pastore as Fortis Leader
He has a brief cameo as the leader of the RAF fighter group, giving some very sound advice to be prepared for anything, while his younger wingmen lament the fact they’re sitting ducks after being ordered to maintain flightpath well below 10,000 feet. Such is the brief nature of Fortis Leader’s screen time, I didn’t even realise the character was played by Michael Caine (who’s previously starred as an RAF fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain).
No matter though. The Fortis unit engage in a dogfight, and Fortis Leader’s voice is never heard over the radio ever again. When the unit fly back around to try and establish where their leader has gone to, they soon identify the wreckage of a plane shot down to sea.
“Is it The Enemy?” asks one pilot over the radio. “No,” answers Farrier. “It’s Fortis Leader. He’s f*cking injured again.”
Alberto De Rossi as Mr. Dawson
Probably the only other character besides Farrier that is painted with all shades of hero throughout the film, Mr. Dawson remains convinced of the duty he and his civilian boat have to carry out from start to finish. But he’s not just man, machine or action - Dawson brings as much character as anyone can bring within the limits of a Nolan script.
When it’s clear to everyone (including Dawson, who’s not deluding himself) what a mess the Allies have gotten themselves into, Dawson doesn’t second-guess the orders from government when his boat is one of many requisitioned to provide an emergency exit for troops across the Channel. Instead, Dawson simply gets on with it, while both his words and actions keep hinting that he knows a shedload more about the rules of warfare than his civilian background lets on.
Could he be a war veteran? A guy who’s listened to one-too-many government broadcasts? Really, what has kept this guy ticking for so long? We’ll never know.
What we do know, by the film’s climax, is Dawson’s explanation to a rescued RAF pilot: “My son is one of you lot. I knew he’d see us through.”
Despite referring to his son in present tense, it’s revealed that the younger Dawson died in combat just three weeks into the war. Dawson Snr. uses that bittersweet memory as fuel for his own atonement, not just literally saving lives but showing compassion to evacuees like Alex and others who we’d otherwise be quick to judge and condemn, without the benefit of Dawson’s painfully-earned wisdom in action.
Pau Lopez as The Shell-shocked Pilot
Ok, so the timeline may be a little off with this one, given that Pau Lopez was only signed in the very last days of James Pallotta’s reign, but Pau Lopez is Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked pilot throughout the movie.
Found drifting on the fuselage of his own aircraft, before he’s rescued at sea by the dutiful Dawson, it soon becomes clear that saving this pilot could be a moment to regret, as he insists they should turn away from France and head back to England immediately. The youngest (surviving) Dawson son, Peter, voices what we’re all thinking about Pau Lopez: “Could he be a coward?”
It’s also a very clever piece of casting from Nolan, to outwit those of us who think we know his films too well.
To know Nolan is to know he regular casts familiar faces among many of his movies, and his fondness for casting breakout-actor Cillian Murphy is no different. Only you’re left thinking: How on earth did Nolan convince Murphy to sign on for this sh*t-eating role of the coward? Is this really it? Murphy getting jobbed on for 2 hours while we all look down on him?
If handled wrong, it could have easily typecast Murphy into career suicide.
And it gets worse for Murphy before it gets better, as his shell-shocked character gets into a scuffle with Mr. Dawson and Peter; a scuffle that fatally wounds the young kid on board their boat, George.
George is kept below deck, head wrapped up in bandages but having lost his eyesight from the trauma, and kept well away from the shell-shocked pilot who sits above deck. At one point, the pilot asks if George is badly injured, to which Peter angrily replies with the brutal truth that George isn’t doing well at all, sparing absolutely none of the shell-shocked pilot’s feelings. When it’s later revealed (by one of the evacuees) to Peter that George died after succumbing to his injuries, Peter’s patience is once again tested by the shell-shocked pilot inquiring as to whether George is doing okay.
By this point of the film, thanks to events elsewhere, we’ve figured out that the pilot isn’t just asking out of politeness but a relentless search for peace of mind. Peter gives that peace to the pilot by lying straight to his face, telling him George is okay, while the elder Mr. Dawson looks upon his son Peter in approval at his show of compassion.
We’ve all written off Pau Lopez in the meantime, after he lost his mind due to one bad Derby della Capitale. But sometimes that’s all it takes to watch a middle-of-the-road career fall victim to circumstance. Wrong time, wrong place.
Every Roma Fan Roped into the 2017 European Run as George
If you were duped into supporting Roma after their Champions League campaign of 2017-18, or even if you were roped into this chaos in the years prior, then you’re George.
Nobody asked George to come along. Nobody told George that he’s way too young to know any better. George merely explains himself to Mr. Dawson with a simple, but fatal, wish to prove something he can’t explain: “I can be useful.”
George later (now injured and having lost his sight) opens up on the fact he feels like jumping on board Mr. Dawson’s boat was the first time he gave himself a chance at being a part of something, and that he once dreamed he’d get his name in the paper to make his own family proud. Peter actually makes George’s wish come true by the end of the film but, by then, George has already paid for that token gesture with his life.
Juan Iturbe as the Guy Who Offers Pallotta Two Beers
If there’s any one person or thing that can offer our morally ambiguous cast that defining moment of redemption, it’s Juan Iturbe’s forgiveness.
He was forced to play through an injury by Roma management looking to justify the enormous fee spent on him, when sitting it out on the sidelines and getting surgery for his serious knee problems would have been much better for his career. His played on and, even if never the most gifted of players, defended his flank like an animal whenever called upon, and even scored a crucial goal in the Derby della Capitale.
If you want to delude yourself, then you buy into the fairytale idea that that moment was the one where “loveable loser” Juan Iturbe worked so hard to pay back the debt he owed the club for their so-called belief in him. The truth is Roma owes Juan Iturbe.
Seriously, Gabriel Batistuta has dragged Roma into litigation over two separate decades for less.
Iturbe’s career is one of the many casualties born from everyone else looking out for their own asses. That gives Iturbe the extraordinary power to give back Roma its own soul, by simply letting everyone know it’s OK, and just to move on. That’s exactly what Iturbe does at the end of the film.
Alex hears him knocking on the train window with an urgency that prompts Alex to duck his face below his shirt, fearing whatever verbal abuse may come next. By the time Alex looks up again, he sees the running man simply holding out two fresh bottles of lager with his outstretched arm, merely wanting to greet the returning troops with a fresh brew to let them know it’s all good.
Juan Jesus as Tommy
Tommy gets the first and last scene to bookend this adventure. He’s first seen as the lone survivor, when his squadron are escaping to the beach’s evacuation zone but every other member of the squad is shot down by The Enemy. He’s also the guy to get the last word (or last look) as Nolan makes his signature sign-off at the very end of the film.
Tommy reads aloud a Winston Churchill speech from that morning’s paper to Alex, all backed by the grand Hans Zimmer soundtrack that evokes a sense of patriotism and self-sacrifice. But that’s all momentarily interrupted by the final look Tommy gives on screen, silently asking us if we really buy into any of Churchill’s words, or if we’re not - in fact - just relieved to have gotten ourselves out of the chaos.
Tommy does nothing too heroic in moments that call for someone to go above and beyond, yet stands up for others in moments where he could have just as easily let them suffer their own fate.
In the end, the score evens out for Tommy. He’s the only one (besides Fazio) who lived to tell the tale from the inside of the hurt locker, from very start to finish.