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Dunkirk — A Meditation on the Nature of Heroism

I cannot talk about this film without talking about specific scenes.  SO THERE ARE GOING TO BE SPOILERS!  IF YOU CAN’T STAND SPOILERS DON’T READ THIS!  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

 

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I loved this movie.  Of course I am a massive Anglophile.  I’m also a student of World War II.  I wrote a screenplay set during the war that turned into a novel that, sadly, I haven’t been able to sell so this film was catnip for me.  I’m a writer who loves dialog so this was an interesting lesson in how to tell a story with virtually no actual dialog.  My friend Kate Elliot said the film was a tone poem, and I think that is a perfect description.  Nolan allowed the chatter of machine guns, the scream of planes diving and bombs falling and the subsequent explosions as statements.  Most of the characters are not named.  They are presented as humans with whom we can all identify who find themselves in a terrifying place.

About halfway through the film I realized this is a movie about heroism, but real heroism not the fake, plastic version that we’re offered in most summer movie fare.  I love the big Marvel movies (and at least one DC movie), but they present a world in which people with near god-like abilities react to stress and fear and danger with a quip or a growl.  Where a fall from a ten story building is shaken off as the fight continues.  It’s fun, it glossy but it’s not real.  Dunkirk was real because the moments of heroism and basic human decency were so small and yet so significant and powerful.

And nobody starts out brave.  We often see them doing the small and craven thing first.  The young soldier who takes the uniform off a dead man.  Who joins with another soldier to carry a man on a stretcher in an crass attempt to get aboard a medical vessel carrying the wounded of the beach.  Eventually we discover he’s a French soldier who has gone AWOL and is trying to escape with the retreating British.  There is a young Brit who join up with a group who try and take a beached freighter.  His attitude is to hell with everybody else.  I’m getting out of here.  Then when a debate begins about who to force off the ship so it will float on the incoming tide he defends the French soldier when all the other frightened men are trying to throw him off the boat.

It’s the old man (the amazing Mark Rylance)  and his son taking his pleasure boat across the channel because our boys are trapped there.  It’s the young friend who goes along not for any patriotic reason but because his chum is going.  It’s the spitfire pilot who knows he has to take out this German bomber before it can sink another ship.  He’s running out of fuel, but with no drama, no bombastic speech he just taps the fuel gage, sighs and gets on with the business at hand.  He is able to bring his plane down safely on the beach in France knowing he will fall into the hands of the Germans and will be a prisoner for the duration of the war.

There is the frightened soldier who none-the-less stays as a ship is sinking after being struck by a torpedo to open a hatch so some of the men and the nurses below decks can escape.  That was a particularly haunting scene for me.  The battered, frightened young men were in the hold being give bread smeared with jam and tea.  Like little boys in the nursery.  Thinking they were safe and then… disaster.

That same soldier who helps free the trapped men ends up alone on the keel of the capsized ship and is rescued by our elderly man and his son.  The soldier is deeply shell shocked and he tries to force them to turn the boat back, return to Britain.  In the struggle he ends up pushing the young friend down the stairs into the hold where he is badly injured.  Rylance’s character has a choice to make; return to try and save the boy or keep on heading for France.  He makes the hard choice.  As they sail closer and closer to Dunkirk they rescue a pilot who has ditched, numerous men in the water.  Eventually the young friend dies from his head injury.  And when the soldier who pushed him asks how the boy is doing we see Rylance’s son hesitate, then say his friend was fine.  Rylance gives his son the tiniest nods of approval.  Because that was an act of heroism too.  Not to lash out and lay this guilt on an already emotionally devastated man.

The scene where the son lies was a powerful moment for me, but the real gut punch for me was when the son remembers a conversation with his dying friend.  About how the friend had always hoped to get his name in the local paper so the son goes to the paper and has his friend’s picture and an article naming him a hero placed in the paper.

Back in France the unnamed British admiral chooses not to leave on the final boat, but stay “for the French” as he puts it.  Another act of understated quiet heroism.

Much has been made about the way Nolan played with time in the editing of this film and it was great and innovative, but for me the power of this film was in its celebration of the human spirit in small acts of kindness and bravery.

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