“Dunkirk” Is a Film about Survival

“Dunkirk” is an interesting film for our cultural moment.

The evacuation of the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force, along with French troops, was a modern brand pulled from the fire, a miracle fully meriting biblical comparisons. But despite our manifest cultural anxieties, no Western country is in a remotely comparable position to the British in 1940, outmaneuvered by an audacious, confident and possibly superior enemy from which they need rescue. One can imagine why audiences weary of imperial America’s seemingly endless slow bleed might thrill to the prospect of a bit of Churchillian nostalgia. That’s an argument for re-watching “Saving Private Ryan,” though, or “Patton,” or, heck, “The Dirty Dozen”—not for revisiting the one bright note in an otherwise total military debacle.

But Christopher Nolan’s very peculiar epic feels like it was constructed in part to build a bridge between our time and the very different era of 1940. It’s not exactly a war film, as Nolan himself has acknowledged, calling it a film about survival. The progress of the closest thing the film has to a protagonist, however, is precisely from thinking in terms of individual survival to survival on a collective, national scale. As such, the film’s project may be to bring home to a civilian audience what exactly this thing called war most fundamentally is.

In the film’s very first sequence, Nolan sets out to isolate a single soldier, played by Fionne Whitehead, whom the camera will follow more than anyone else in the movie. Given the conspicuously generic name of “Tommy,” a name I don’t recall ever being actually mentioned, he is clearly intended to be the stand-in with whom the audience can best identify.

Moreover, he’s an observer character from the start, when he catches a falling leaflet warning that he and his fellows are surrounded. It’s a habit he maintains throughout the film, spotting details, whether it’s a fellow soldier burying a comrade on the beach or, once back in England, that the fellow who congratulates the soldiers on their return is blind (so it is not because of embarrassment at their defeat that he doesn’t meet their eyes). He is, therefore, also a surrogate for the director, his entry point into the film as well as ours.

Within the first few minutes, Nolan separates this every-soldier from any attachment. The rest of his unit is slaughtered by German fire, and only he manages to scramble to safety behind the perimeter. He makes his way to the beach, where he finds line upon line of soldiers waiting nervously but patiently for British destroyers to come and take them home. He tries to find a line, but there is none for him. And when the first German dive-bombers arrive, he experiences just what sitting ducks the British troops are.

And so he plans a personal escape. He and another man silently agree to grab a stretcher with a wounded soldier and make their way on to the next ship. It’s a tense race against time, with repeated reverses—but an ultimately a futile one: though they make it to the ship, their charge is taken but they themselves are turned away.

This becomes the template for effort after effort to get off the beach. If he gets on a ship, the ship will be sunk. If he swims to another ship, it will refuse him for lack of room. If he finds an abandoned ship beached by the receding tide, it will come under fire by Germans taking target practice before the tide comes all the way back in.

In another sort of film, one directed by Stanley Kubrick or Jean Renoir, this sequence of events might be the basis for bitter comedy, a sign that the universe is comprehensively determined to screw this particular soldier by never letting him get off that beach. But Nolan’s film may have less humor in it than any war film in history. (I recall precisely one wry joke, uttered by Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander, who seems to have wandered in from a more traditional film.) Instead of a comment on the absurd black comedy of war, Nolan’s purpose appears to be didactic. He wants to give his audience stand-in—and the watching audience—multiple opportunities to watch how the military force arrayed around him responds to repeated failure. The answer is not, “with heroism.” The answer is “with discipline.”

So, when the soldiers on the beach come under attack, they all duck together, still in line, and when the bombers have passed they all stand up. When ships go down, the soldiers and sailors clamber as best they can out of their bottom-bound vessels and jump in the water in an orderly fashion. There’s abundant death and destruction, but there’s no panic, except among those who have broken discipline, like the band who make for the beached vessel sitting just beyond the perimeter. We see this, and we see our soldier stand-in seeing the same things.

Nolan does give us two stories of outright heroism to intercut across this central spine. One is the story of one of the little ships pressed into service to rescue soldiers directly from the beach, captained by its civilian owner, Mr. Dawson, played by Mark Rylance, and crewed by his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend, George (Barry Keoghan). Dawson is both a perfect exemplar of British stoicism and a deeply warm and empathetic figure, so much so that he seems almost inapproachable in his quiet heroism.

The other is of a fighter pilot, Farrier (Tom Hardy), the last of a squadron of three tasked with ridding the skies above Dunkirk of German planes, who decides to pursue an enemy bomber well beyond the point where he won’t have enough fuel to return. His last feats of aerial combat are literally beyond belief, after which he glides his plane to safety on the beach and emerges to destroy his aircraft before the enemy can get to it. As he stands before his burning plane and surrenders to German troops, his figure is so dominant and powerful that he recalls a comic book superhero more than a real person.

The contrast with the “ordinary” soldier felt to me deliberate, and part of Nolan’s educational mission. We live in an era in which the overwhelming majority of filmgoers will have no experience of military life whatsoever, either as veterans or relatives thereof. “Dunkirk,” a visually stunning film—overwhelming in IMAX— will not give those audience members the illusion that by having watched the film they understand what war is. They will be moved, I’m sure; this particular story cannot be anything but. But its very distance from the communal character of military experience marks it as a film of our time trying to reach back to another era, when military culture was more generally understood, and show us: see, this is what you no longer understand.

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker. Prior to joining The American Conservative, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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