A Common Dutifulness: On Christopher Nolan’s "Dunkirk"

There are several worthwhile films out right now, but you should make a point of seeing Christopher Nolan’s latest film, "Dunkirk," (and in 70mm, if you can). It is splendid filmmaking, in the grand style.

Nolan gives us something as visually sumptuous as a Malick film, while being more perspicuous. But this isn’t prosaic storytelling. In fact, the structure of the film is bracingly ingenious. There are three narrative sequences, each on a different timescale, which are brought more or less to coincide towards the end. Nolan, by this ever-interesting expedient, renders the complex, nigh chaotic, kinesis of the Dunkirk evacuation surveyable.

There is a relentless score cutting across all three sequences, like the speed of light in different special-relativity inertial frames, except these photons tick like a cosmic bomb. There is almost no lapse in the dramatic tension, and yet it is in no way overwrought or exhausting. This is an astonishing achievement.

Nolan had the good sense to keep this movie under two hours, though his subject matter (the near-catastrophe of losing the entire British Expeditionary Force to the German military at the beginning of World War II) could easily have justified a far longer film, a modesty I wish would catch on—the action sequences in too many films are prolonged in an undisciplined manner. This is a very lean movie.

Because it is so astringent with regard to warm emotions (only Kenneth Branagh and the scenes on the civilian yacht Moonstone moderate that astringency during the course of the movie), the catharsis, when it comes, is truly cathartic.

Above all, we are moved to tears by Branagh’s and Tom Hardy’s simple warrior courage and the Moonstone sailors’ citizen resolve and immense decency. We are pressed to consider: can our nation ever muster up such common heroism and simple humanity, as the Brits did, as we once did?

At the end, we hear Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech read from a newspaper by one of the soldier-survivors. We hear Churchill call to America:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

In her finest hour, America heard the call, and we rose to the challenge that, by itself, sufficiently justified our existence as a nation. In this very different hour of grievance-tribalisms across the political spectrum: could we do such a great thing again? One people, united, exercising civic and other human virtues?

It made me weep to see it in so living an image. Please God, we will see this nation some day produce such an honorable citizenry again.

Towards the conclusion of the film, we see that the soldiers feel shame for having been beaten. Many of these men who in a fair fight on the battlefield would have been courageous, became desperate and craven in the attempt simply to survive. There’s always the question: Would I have done better? Would I have been like the Branagh character in placing others before myself, or Hardy’s Spitfire pilot, or the civilians on the Moonstone? How earnest is my pursuit of virtue? How much flesh will I commit to the good of my neighbor, and to the common good?