Without creating an entirely new way of telling a story up on screen, The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan has combined so many unusual elements in his World War II drama Dunkirk that it feels like something you’ve never seen before. With limited dialogue and no clear focus on any one character, Nolan’s ode to one of the most famous WWII evacuations uses incredible sound design, shifting perspectives, and minimal fanfare to give audiences an “experience” of terror-inducing combat.
I found Dunkirk to be such a potent portrait of conflict that it inflamed my empathy – more than my news feed does. While stories, images and first-hand accounts from war zones whiz passed my eyes and mouse every day, I can struggle to care. But Dunkirk manages to have the impact of the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan – sustained across a whole movie (without being as violent). I was left rattled and, dare I say, shellshocked.
I can feel more emotional during a war movie than during the 24/7 news cycle.
I think Nolan’s re-enactment of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops being trapped by the German army in 1940 affected me – because I chose to let it do so. Here’s my Dunkirk confession, then: I can feel more emotional during a war movie than during the 24/7 news cycle. Unlike my Facebook scrolling or website hopping, I made the decision to devote my time, gaze and attention to what Dunkirk projects.
Dunkirk imagines what it would have been like to be in the thick of such an intense stand-off. Watching it, I imagined the same thing. As Allied soldiers wait for rescue, the British forces struggle to send adequate reinforcements and boats to take their troops to safety. English civilians are enlisted to help. And I got swept up in a fictional account of a real rescue mission, as well as challenged by how distant I can feel from real-life conflicts around the world.
As much as Dunkirk struck me to the core and made me question my own levels of real-world empathy, its not without its flaws. Dunkirk does slump (at points) due to its lack of traditional components and movie-making techniques. Without a clear hero or villain (or main character, for that matter), you might struggle to stay orientated with Nolan’s war salute. Also, the lack of a major story arc, character development or clear point can be frustrating, as Dunkirk unfolds rather than surges to a specific goal or message.
Dunkirk’s final moments offer a surprisingly strong note about where the ultimate rescue comes from.
But Dunkirk’s approach to bravery and cowardice is memorable, largely because the film effortlessly displays how hard those things can be to define. People don’t tend to be either good or bad, strong or weak, selfless or selfish; we’re all a mix of both.
With significant themes of life, death, hope and salvation flowing throughout this war movie, the final moments offer a surprisingly strong note about where the ultimate rescue comes from. Dunkirk isn’t trumpeting a Christian message but it does finish with an unexpected pointer to the eternal salvation held out by Jesus Christ (in contrast with the temporary rescues from evil which may come our way, in this life).