Dunkirk and the Call to Sacrificial Manhood

…for those with eyes to see, the film calls us once more to the fight, once more to the fray, once more to the conflict for the souls of men, the upbuilding of the local church, and the advancement of Christ’s unstoppable kingdom.

The movie Dunkirk, by auteur director Christopher Nolan, is less a traditional movie, and more what you could call a long-play cinematic music video. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film that more solders the aural and the visual than this. Nolan’s films are known for their scores. Hans Zimmer has effectively captured the high-tower of modern soundtracks, and bent them to his bidding. Nolan gives him a long leash. In Dunkirk, sight and sound are equally stars, and combine to form an experience that both draws one in and pushes one into the corner.

The movie, in a word, is overwhelming. It is spare, but pounding; hopeful, but bleak; modern, but ancient. The worldview of the film holds more in common with the poetry of Macaulay (whose “Lays” Churchill could recite from memory for nearly hours at a time) than it does the gender-studies textbook you spot students reading at your local coffee haunt. In Dunkirk, Nolan offers a study of manhood in wartime. His take is characteristically textured; characters do not act according to an easy psychic geometry, but perform their own twists and turns, revealing the seeds of both heroism and treachery in their hearts—sometimes in the same moment.

We cannot know the intricate workings and motivations of a mind like Nolan’s. He seems labyrinthine as a person, not unlike the puzzles his movies frequently feature. Yet I could not help but notice that Nolan’s career arc has led him from destabilized tragedy (Memento), to realist fantasy (Inception), and now to enhanced realism (Dunkirk). I’m wary of chalking this trajectory up to one easy instinct, but I am comfortable saying this: Nolan has been exploring deep human emotion, and also manhood, for some time now. With this World War II-era film, he gives us a master-portrait of the conflicting impulses in the heart of every man. The movie, after all, features only men, with just a momentary exception or two.

Nolan give the movie ballast in Mark Rylance’s character. He dependably and virtuously drives his little boat to the shores of Dunkirk, and offers quiet strength to his son, his son’s friend, and a deeply-troubled soldier. This wise and others-centered father figure contrasts sharply with the young men of the film, whose physical course mirrors that of their souls. They take unpredictable turns, lash out at one another, then surprise us by suddenly jeopardizing their own lives to help others. I wonder if Nolan, in focusing the film on these brave but also callow young men, is speaking to us, generationally, right now. The young men of today are not—most of them—pressed into military service. But they are similarly challenged, and they are in many cases floundering, lashing out, yet still capable of acts of breathtaking bravery.

Rylance serves as the stable, firm hand on his boat of young men. His hand literally guides the ship, and one cannot help but note that this is what fathers do for their sons. He is courageous, to be sure, but Nolan takes the theme higher, up into the clouds. Tom Hardy’s character is an RAF pilot. The RAF losses were worse during Operation Dynamo—the Dunkirk evacuation—than they were during the Battle of Britain, when German planes scorched English soil in sortie after sortie. Hardy’s character represents these brave soldiers of the skies. In Dunkirk, Hardy’s minimalistic thespianism is richly, movingly evocative. As in the actual operation, he is outmanned and outgunned, but he refuses to cease fighting. He puts himself in terrible jeopardy by pressing into the battle when his low fuel demands he go home. Hardy’s character shows us manhood at its apex: taking the fight to the enemy, acting selflessly and humbly, sacrificing oneself in the line of duty for the rescue of others.

I should stress that this portrait comes under extreme cinematic duress. Dunkirk will rattle every fiber of your body. It struck me as too loud, but then I remembered Nolan’s purchase on realism in this film. Like Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the director is not spinning a yarn, but bringing us into the action. His goal is not entertainment, nor is it mere education. It is experience. If anything, however, Nolan is underplaying the true horror of war. In just one day, as one solitary example, German planes dropped 15,000 high-explosive and 30,000 incendiary bombs on the beaches and boats of the Dunkirk evacuation. I repeat myself: one day.

This is why the “greatest generation” was so often silent when asked about their military service. They were a self-effacing brand of men, to be sure; they knew nothing of “expressive individualism,” the lingua franca of our time. But alongside their ingrained inexpressiveness, they saw things, and heard things, most of us do not know. We take our freedom, and our freedom from horror, for granted. But for a short while, Dunkirk reminds us of the cost of this liberty. It was paid in blood by men who did not ask for the call to save civilization, but who answered when it came.

As in any Nolan movie, there are a plethora of beautiful shots that linger in one’s mind. No director I know of is more effective at showing action from behind his characters. Nolan’s conceit of filming at waist- or knee-level while following his protagonists first grabbed me during his Dark Knight trilogy and is put to tremendous use in Dunkirk. But the image that I remember, clear as day, after seeing the film is of Kenneth Branagh’s character. He is the on-site leader of the evacuation, and faces terrible danger at all times, yet refuses to give up his post. As the final boat in the film leaves the beach, Nolan gives us an image of this man, standing high above, a watchman on the smoldering wall. His hands are clasped, his uniform is straight as an arrow, and he is at his post, defying death, defying the Nazis, a pillar of courage for the shell-shocked young men around him.

Perhaps Nolan, in studying men afresh, gave us this fleeting shot to remind us of our task. All around us, young men flail and struggle. They are abandoned by their fathers, egged on by their peers, forgotten by their society. They do not know where to go, and they are prone to flame out, or slip away, just like the young men of Dunkirk. But they are not alone, and we must not leave them alone. We must stand fast; we dare not leave the wall.

Our battles are within and without, from outside our homes, but also inside them. Dunkirk is many things, and will be analyzed in many lights. We cannot miss this, though: for those with eyes to see, the film calls us once more to the fight, once more to the fray, once more to the conflict for the souls of men, the upbuilding of the local church, and the advancement of Christ’s unstoppable kingdom.