Lessons from Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s widely-praised film Dunkirk finally opened this weekend in Germany, where I live temporarily. Sarah Lee’s preview from ten days ago helped to amp up my excitement for the latest installment from my favorite active filmmaker.  As promised, both by reviews and by Nolan’s previous work, it is unlike any war film that has come before it. It is a must-see that offers plenty of lessons, both for moviemakers and for our times in general, some of which I will highlight below.

In contrast to the rest of Nolan’s movies, Dunkirk does not include much dialogue. It is not exposition-heavy, but it is hardly a silent film. The sound mixing and editing is intricate and intense. Adding Hans Zimmer’s unconventional score — often less music than another level of sound — and the experience, though not graphic, can be harrowing. The additional layer of the right-there cinematography completes the immersion, with shots that are not flashy, but that will cause the reflective viewer to question just how they pulled them off.

At the same time, some signature Nolan-esque elements are present. The film contains separate storylines for the land, the sea and the air portions of the event, each taking place over stretches of time that differ significantly. As the storylines interact throughout the film, the result is that events are seen from multiple perspectives at different points in the runtime. We see a character enter danger from the perspective one storyline, but only later see what happens to him from the perspective of another. In this sense, it is a completely new and complex war movie.

In another sense, it is Nolan’s simplest and most conventional movie in some time, with its lack of non-chronological time (there are no flashbacks or flashforwards), a complicated premise or any mention of astrophysics. Recognizing that fact risks missing just how difficult a feat it is to produce a film of such singular vision. It requires tight direction that, in addition to the score, sound and cinematography, deserves an Oscar nomination.

In addition to the incredible immersive experience Dunkirk offers, it also contains a number of important lessons for our times. The simplest and most straightforward has nothing to do with the story in the film. It is for moviemakers and studios: non-franchise, large budget movies can be financially successful. It is a $100 million dollar movie with a $50.5 million opening weekend (Box Office Mojo now has it at $131 million worldwide since it opened), which is a remarkable feat for a movie that is not a tentpole film, a comic book adaptation, a sequel, a prequel, a reboot or an adaptation.

Hollywood should learn to return to more risk-taking. Monumental failures may become more common, but instead of the trend of bland, rarely-bad-but-rarely-good movies for the past decade and a half, a few truly great achievements in film might also be box office successes, even cultural phenomenons. A director might have to have the singular vision and talent of Christopher Nolan, but it can be done.

The second lesson that Dunkirk holds is that the defense of Western Civilization is not all about great men and flashy valor, but it is also — perhaps mostly — about the average person who is willing to quietly do his duty — the person, incidentally, that Western Civilization at its best intends to elevate. There is almost no mention of the surrounding politics. When Churchill’s famous contemporaneous speech makes it into the movie, we do not hear it from him.

As Philip Reynolds at Acculturated wrote,

Dunkirk is a reminder that you don’t have to be Iron Man or Batman or even Gandhi or Mother Teresa to change the world. You just need to be willing to have the fortitude and courage to act when called upon, and to respond to chaos and disorder not with cynicism or fear, but with, “I’ll be useful.”

In this sense, it parallels Tolkien’s hobbits, who are heroic not because they are great warriors or fearless leaders, but because they do the right thing when called upon. Importantly, they possess this quiet fortitude because they live each day practicing simple duties, and they have learned to value the opportunity to do so. Both Dunkirk and The Lord of the Rings are very British in this portrayal of heroism. What the men at Dunkirk stood for was a corner of the world where they could continue to live their lives as free British men, with their families and their faith.

This lesson can easily be applied to life by considering one’s values and living them out. Christian values, family values, traditional values — sometimes these are best defended by example. Living like Christ, building a strong family, and standing on traditional morals, even as others follow other gods, their families and communities disintegrate, and they abandon their integrity and principles, can be the best advertisement for the virtues of those values. Sometimes one’s duty is simply show that through one’s own life.

Some will object that this is not fighting, that what is necessary is to adopt the tactics of opponents. By comparison, some might object that the evacuation of Dunkirk was a retreat and a loss. True, in the short run. But the third lesson to be learned is found in the tagline of the movie: Survival is victory. Conservatives who have found themselves abruptly thrown from the driver’s seat of the Republican Party in the age of Trump, who are alienated by both the direction of the White House and the lack of direction in Congress, can take solace in the knowledge that tactical retreat and regrouping sometimes comes before ultimate triumph.

In the meantime, we should all enjoy Dunkirk. With its overwhelmingly positive critical reception and box office overachievement, it may be the film that reconnects award show accolades with broad cultural appeal — and incentivizes Hollywood to replicate that fusion. It may also be a source of encouragement for all free Westerners and Christians to find the quiet fortitude to perpetuate our way of life apart from the spotlight or the world stage, even when we seem to be in retreat.