My family and I saw Dunkirk late last week, and I spent the next couple days turning it over in my head. It is, of course, a really great movie, as you would expect from Nolan, and one that does a certain amount of time-bending and bobbing and weaving with narrative. The performances are terrific, and the end of the film is just wonderfully bold.
But Dunkirk also defies virtually every wartime movie convention. There’s no movie reel explication, no character has their backstory detailed in conversations over rations or a bottle of wine found in an abandoned farmhouse, the politicians and generals are completely absent; all that’s left is people, many of whom look pretty similar (uniforms and haircuts will do that), trying to escape the machinery of war.
And, as Guardian columnist Zoe Williams points out in her essay “Dunkirk offers a lesson – but it isn’t what Nigel Farage thinks,”* trying to help each other escape the machinery of war:
the emotional heart of the event has nothing to do with battle – give or take a bit of dogfighting – and everything to do with generosity; unarmed sailors saving strangers for no better reason than that they needed to be saved…. Up close, all you can see in a thousand small boats, defenceless against the skies, is what Thatcher dismissed as the “soft virtues”: humility, gentleness, sympathy. Of her “vigorous virtues” – self-sufficiency, independence, rectitude – almost none.
Indeed, that is the immediate legacy of war: that self-reliance is revealed as not just a myth but a peculiarly unattractive one, thin and tasteless against the richness of fellowship. The mood of postwar Britain was the one that built the NHS, created social housing and signed up to the UN refugee convention. If anything is ever learned from bloodshed, and it would be better if we didn’t have to learn it repeatedly, it’s that there is no fit memorial to those who gave their lives but near infinite generosity between those who didn’t.
This reminds me a lot of Harry Leslie Smith’s writing about the legacy of World War II, and how at fantastic cost his generation built a postwar world that was not only peaceful, but incomparably fairer, more secure, and more prosperous for everyone, most especially people who had grown up poor during the Depression (as he had). Dunkirk, unlike most war movies, isn’t mainly about action and killing; it’s mainly about saving people. Even the dogfights are about shooting down German planes that otherwise would strafe and bomb British soldiers and ships, which makes it more like the action on the ground.
It also reminds me of some reading I’ve been doing on heroism, and how to think about it. In a series of essays (this one on “The Banality of Heroism,” is easily accessible), Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo argues that people who act heroically voluntarily risk life and limb, or reputation or honor (as whistleblowers and reformers do); that they often have to actively navigate and overcome obstacles to undertake those acts; that they do so without expectation of reward, or even much expectation that their acts will be remembered. Heroism isn’t just something you exhibit on the battlefield or fighting criminals; it’s a quality people exhibit when standing up for justice, or opposing popular but wrong points of view, or rescuing stranded soldiers and allies.
So you go into Dunkirk expecting military heroism, and witness a very different sort: that kind of heroism exhibited by the first responders in the World Trade Center who risked life and limb to help people get out, or the heroism of people who help rescue strangers during an earthquake or flash flood. But better than most movies, Dunkirk makes the case that both varieties of heroism deserve our respect.
* (Of course, “It’s not what Nigel Farage thinks” is one of those lines that typesetters would be able to set in their sleep; they wouldn’t even need to think about where in their trays they’d need to reach for the correct letters, they’d done it so often.)