There is nothing quite like Dunkirk. Even for Christopher Nolan, its writer-director, it is something new. To say it is just a genre film or compare to it to other war movies is disingenuous and reductionistic. Dunkirk is a white-knuckled vision of determination, bravery, and hope that celebrates a “human miracle” while revealing all of humanity’s need for lasting hope.
Dunkirk should not work as well as it does because it is a wild conglomeration of contradictions. It is both old and new, using modern nonlinear storytelling to emotionally draw you into an event that took place nearly a century ago. The entire movie is recorded on state of the art IMAX film and captures the most harrowing aerial battle ever staged on film, but he grades the color to read like 1940s technicolor war reels. The silent beaches thump and thrill with Hans Zimmer’s abstract soundtrack, full of ticking clocks, naval alarms, and swells reminiscent of his work on Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. It is both violent and horrifying, but in a nifty trick, never gory like Saving Private Ryan or Fury and resoundingly uplifting.
In short, it is a masterclass in filmmaking.
The film focuses on three stories spread across multiple timelines on land, sea, and sky. The men on the beach have minimal dialogue and vague names: Tommy (British slang for a common soldier), Gibson, Alex. They have no back story. They begin walking the colorful streets of Dunkirk as Nazi propaganda pamphlets rain the sky reading, “You are surrounded.” As their hope fades, the boys—zits and all—race to the beach to find no transports home. The color washes from the frame, clouds cover the sun. They are the dead men who will never see home again, though it lies a mere twenty-six miles away hunted by an unseen enemy. In fact, we only see Germans once in the whole film, and out of focus at that.
The scenes on the beach are shot with pointed nihilism. Death without burial or honor awaits them in every direction. The lives and sacrifices are meaningless. England will fall and then the world because they failed. It is a world of survival of the fittest where none are fit to survive. Nolan explored humanity’s capacity for survival in Interstellar, but in Dunkirk, he has found the limit of the Darwinian drive.
But this is more than a grim war movie. The nihilism on the beach is burned away like fog by the sunshine that follows the Spitfire fighter planes and civilian armada as they fight their way to Dunkirk. Hope came to Dunkirk on the wings and sails of those who sacrificed their survival to assure the survival of others.
The sailboat that sits at the heart of Dunkirk is steered by a man only known as Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan), the only characters with backstories and clear motivation beyond survival. They are the secular humanist miracle, who reject their own survival for the sake of strangers. They do not see dead men without stories but living beings, souls (if Nolan will excuse the term) that are valuable for the mere reason that they have names. To Nolan, these sailors and the airmen who protected them are saviors and ministering angels.
As the dejected troops returned home, fully prepared to be mocked in the streets for their failure, they find cheering crowds and a happy welcome. These were lost sons—an entire generation written off as dead—who were resurrected and returned home. The world is all verdant fields, happy children, and proud fathers. “All we did was survive,” one soldier says. “That’s enough,” an elderly man replies. And it is.
Dunkirk is a literal humanist movie, but it cannot avoid its spiritual implications. Nolan writes and directs his films as if religion did not exist. I adore his work, often despite his philosophical conclusions, because he cannot help but point to a greater hope beyond this world. Is survival a driving force in human history? Of course! But it is not everything, because no one can outrun death. We will all find ourselves on a Dunkirk beach one day.
But as Christians, that beach is not a gray world. Rather, it is a harbor for our rescue, brought by the Savior who left his home to die, so that we might be taken there to live with God. There is a rescue coming, there is hope of going to our true home, and there is no guilt or shame for our failures—only a welcome party. We are also sent out like Mr. Dawson, to rescue those still waiting on that nearby hopeless beach. We cannot save everyone, but we must try to save whoever we can.
These spiritually rich implications of Dunkirk are unavoidable for the followers of Christ, but they also mean that many Dunkirk themed sermons await you on Sunday mornings. Pastors love a good movie reference.
In Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan lays plain the dignity of life and the necessity for hope and sacrifice like a wartime photographer. It is a literalist movie, but artfully describes the battle through raw emotion that sucks you into the sea and cockpits of the men you are watching. The result is a brilliant, thrilling, visually mesmerizing film.
Cover image by Matt Hawthorne.