Richard Attenborough did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying John Holden in Dunkirk.
Dunkirk is broken off into two stories one that depicts John Mills as a British soldier trying to get his small group of men safely home, and the other portraying Bernard Lee as a civilian who decides to do something to help the men stuck in France. Both those men are portrayed as perhaps having a few hesitations just in terms of self preservation and general worry but both are shown to be fairly admirable at the beginning and only become more admirable as the film continues. That is not the case for the character of John Holden played by Richard Attenborough. John Holden a businessman who makes money from the war through manufacturing belt buckles, but nevertheless treats the war with a certain ambivalence going so far as to proclaim it as a "phony war".
Richard Attenborough is terrific here in playing a somewhat standard character of the man's who does not seem to believe in anything. Attenborough's performance works though because he finds hidden depth within what seems like a shallow character. Attenborough even in the early scenes where Holden is basically complaining about a war that is making him money does not play as if Holden is just some jerk, even though he technically is. Attenborough instead creates Holden as a fearful and nervous man, and his portrayal suggests that more than anything Holden would prefer that the war was truly phony and offered no threat at all to his existence. When Holden voices his opinions on the uncaring side of things Attenborough makes them less despicable because Attenborough shows that it comes from a particularly honest fear through his performance.
As the story plays out though Holden is tasked to do something since he has a boat, and civilians are asked to contribute their boats to the Dunkirk evacuation. Attenborough makes the most out of what he is given and shows the growth in courage of Holden quite effectively. The reason is that Attenborough does not all of the sudden show Holden have some sort of revelatory moment that gives him strength, nor does he even show the fear completely leave Holden. Attenborough rather completely earns the transformation and makes it rather poignant by convincingly showing the strength to slowly emerge out of the fear. Attenborough stays particularly subtle in the transition yet never underwhelming in the power as Attenborough makes it a completely believable strength that comes from this rather meek man.
Overall the film Dunkirk would have benefited from more Richard Attenborough as most films tend to. The more that one gives Attenborough the more that he delivers, and this film does not quite give Attenborough enough to do. Every moment Attenborough does have is a remarkable as he humanizes Holden and his whole standpoint wonderfully well even when morally dubious in nature. The only problem is that Dunkirk does not care all that much about Holden's story especially near the end of the film where Attenborough is basically stuck getting a boat started, although his portrayal of Holden's reaction to hearing about the death one of his friends is quite affecting. The film particularly seems to give Attenborough the short straw in that it seems he's suppose to have one final scene that we never, which is a shame since I'm sure Attenborough would have been great as usual. Despite the limitations Attenborough still manages some fine work as usual, and is one of the best elements in the film.