Or Everything That’s Right (and Wrong) About Dunkirk

Dunkirk is incredible—it is a work of art. To call it anything less would be inaccurate. Three storylines, shot on-site with period ships and aircraft and hundreds of extras, weave together over the course of the film to portray Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of British troops at Dunkirk, from the ground, sea, and sky.

One of the most anticipated films of the summer, Dunkirk checks many “21st century war film” boxes. Directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight) and scored by Hans Zimmer (Inception, Interstellar, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lion King), the box office success has been widely praised, and not without good cause. Audiences and reviewers alike found it riveting and monumental in scale, some even calling it the best war movie of all time. While the film accurately portrays a historic moment of World War II in a stunning manner rarely seen in war films, the film falls in line behind a long list of modern war movies that lose sight of the bigger picture while striving to elevate the individual man.

Each storyline of Dunkirk, “The Mole,” “The Sea,” and “The Sky,” follows individual men and the roles they play in the battle. Nolan condenses the experiences of all the soldiers and civilians involved by choosing to tell the tale in three overlapping segments. In “The Mole,” Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) pairs with Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles) to sneak aboard a rescue vessel in any way they can. With scarcely any dialogue, Nolan places the audience directly in the melee of self-preservation as the nightmarish beach is bombed and vessel after vessel is ripped apart by the enemy.

“The Sea” tells the tale of the Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend (Barry Keoghan) as they sail to rescue soldiers on their boat Moonstone, taking part in what history has called the “little ships,” civilian vessels manned by the British navy or citizens themselves that crossed the channel and saved thousands of soldiers lives.  

Up in “The Air,” three Spitfires head toward the French coast with limited fuel tanks. In aerial dogfighting shots and cockpit viewpoints, Nolan forces his audience into the head of the pilot (Tom Hardy). As the seconds tick by in this hour-long storyline, each decision to fight or flee, play it safe or sacrifice, is agonizingly toiled over by the pilot as his judgement calls directly affect the other characters from “The Sea” and “The Mole.”

To his credit, Nolan restrains from focusing on the blood and gore on the beach, unlike many other war films do. Dunkirk doesn’t dwell on the physical horrors of war but the psychological terror of every moment, forcing the audience to agonizingly watch each individual’s decisions have disastrous or miraculous consequences.

Modern critics praised the film for being a “true” war story of the human acts and small moments that make up the larger battle. Yet this success, this approach, constitutes a type of failure by Nolan and many other directors.

Dunkirk is tragic. Filled with death, despair, terror, and loss, Nolan’s film focuses on the individual in war. The single man and his power to influence those around him. This is the modern trend. But in focusing on the individual man, the single minute of battle, the one decision to help a fellow soldier, we as the audience lose sight of the bigger picture.

The Dunkirk story isn’t a war story that leads to victory, as World War II would continue for many years. Dunkirk is Nolan’s attempt to appeal to the millennial perception of death.

We like to see the tiny pieces, the reasons why war is obviously awful. We want to see man help fellow man in the darkest moments. We celebrate the citizen who was courageous and the soldier who sacrificed.

These are all parts of war. War is terrifying and any film that says differently is kidding itself. But the questions Dunkirk and many other modern war films consistently avoid are way bigger than the individual. What is worth dying for? What is worth sending sons and daughters off to their likely deaths? Why did our leaders, for better or worse, choose to undertake these hugely consequential and costly wars?

Dunkirk and other modern war films want to take the easy, entertaining way out. By focusing on the individuals and characters of war, terrifying their audiences with powerful scores and realistic effects, or even playing up the small acts of decency that pull our heartstrings, directors like Nolan play to the millennial weakness for bright spots in moral gray areas or good human stories.

Do not get me wrong, Dunkirk is entertaining and captivating, Nolan tells a good story. But once again, war is minimized to its minutiae and individual moments on screen. Dunkirk successfully avoids asking (and thereby avoids answering) any larger questions about why wars are fought and the lengths to which humanity will go to preserve life.

Soren Hansen is a member of the Program of Liberal Studies and lives in Lewis Hall. Her favorite things to do are casually discussing the meaning of life over coffee and playing the upright bass in the symphony. Contact her at mhansen3@nd.edu