World War II is one of my favorite historic eras and film genres. Perhaps it has been idealized too much in the recent past, but I believe it was a time when we saw humanity at its best and worst simultaneously. The worst represented by the German war machine that gave birth to the Holocaust. And the best with the sight of the brave men landing at Normandy under heavy gunfire – on their way to freeing on continent.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk brought to light an event of the Second World War which few Americans know about (it took place in 1940, before Pearl Harbor and America’s involvement) and did so in Nolan’s atypical auteur style. It combined one of my favorite directors with one of my favorite genres – making for exceptional storytelling.
This was not your dad’s World War II movie; it was something different: an arthouse blockbuster in the purest sense of the phrase. But an art-house that wasn’t self-important or self-indulgent. It was easy to understand, which was great considering the subject matter.
Dunkirk was the harrowing story of what was essentially a miracle – almost 400,000 men evacuated from France as enemy forces closed in on all sides. It captured what the British call the “Dunkirk spirit” that the British people developed after the evacuation and maintained for the duration of the war. So many things came together perfectly that I have no doubt in my mind that this was one of the Lord’s divine interventions that have been chronicled throughout history.
The Good: Nolan Meets World War II
Nolan is exceptional at creating non-linear storylines, and Dunkirk was yet another unique story structure. It processed the events of the Dunkirk evacuation from three different perspectives – and each one over a different period of time (one hour, a week, and several hours). They all intertwined beautifully, leading to an exceptional climax.
The final montage was one of the most brilliant pieces of filmmaking I have ever seen. Narrated by Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) reading excerpts from British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill’s speech after the evacuation, the montage wrapped up all the stories of the characters and at the same time slowly built to show the new resolve of the Brits. Farrier’s (Tom Hardy) plane engulfed in flames was an ingenious and beautiful image – signifying the very real failure in the moment, but also representing the fighting “Dunkirk spirit” ignited in the hearts of the British.
I had the chance to see Dunkirk in an IMAX theater during its theatrical run – meaning a real several-stories-tall IMAX theater, not “Lie-MAX” and it really added to the spectacle. The 70mm image was crisp, clear, and a bit overwhelming at times. It captured the breadth and scope of Nolan’s vision, as he’s the only filmmaker today who has properly embraced IMAX to its full potential.
Because of IMAX and Nolan’s creative eye, the cinematography of Dunkirk was phenomenal. Nolan used every conceivable angle – putting IMAX cameras where no one has placed them before, including on the wings of fighter planes! The shots ranged from grandiose to claustrophobic, changing to set the mood of the scene. All the while, the color palette was a series of grays and browns, highlighting the hopelessness the men must have felt on that beach. When the civilian ships eventually came to the rescue, their colors rejuvenated the screen, putting more emotion to their arrival.
The score to Dunkirk was one of Hans Zimmer’s best. He and Nolan have had a great collaboration over the last decade. For Dunkirk, Zimmer’s score was really more emotion than melody, enhancing the feelings of every scene. The images can be lifeless sometimes (a fair criticism of Nolan’s filmmaking) and the score really related those feelings. The ticking clock motif (for which Zimmer used the sound of Nolan’s pocket watch) perfectly added to the tension as well.
The Bad: A Bloodless War
Dunkirk had a lack of realistic violence, which took me out of the film sometimes. I suppose that’s a product of the modern war film. Because of movies like Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge, we now expect all war films to show the bloody carnage.
The lack of blood reminded me that Dunkirk was not a photograph, but an impressionist painting – free from some of the confines of reality for the sake of enhancing the storytelling. It bothered me a little bit, not because I have some kind of bloodlust, but because I’m a stickler for realism, particularly in WWII films.
Even though I loved the final montage, its last shot was awkward, which was really frustrating. After the great push-in to the burning airplane, the camera inexplicably cut back to a literal seconds-long shot of Tommy reacting to the Churchill speech he just read – a reaction that was flaccid and uninspiring, to say the least. This was a visual contradiction to the triumphant shot of the plane (as well as the soulful swelling of the music) and I didn’t understand Nolan’s artistic choice in that instance.
Miracle on the Channel
I have always loved history. It’s the story of humanity that is unfolding before our very eyes. History teaches us things – lessons learned from generations past so that we don’t repeat mistakes. Though people invariably do because they arrogantly believe that “this time, it will work” because mankind is supposedly so much more advanced now than then (see the evils of socialism).
More importantly, history is God’s story. The Bible is a history of the world and chronicles the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plan for His creation. And through this story, God is shown to be a loving, forgiving being, and He has shown His love countless times over the millennia by forgiving us of our transgressions against him.
“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”Matthew 19:26 (NIV)
History has also shown miracles – God’s direct interventions in the affairs of men. The Bible chronicles plenty of instances of direct and spectacular miracles.
One of the most well-known miracles of God is the parting of the Red Sea in the Book of Exodus. The Hebrews had just escaped slavery in Egypt and stood at the coast of the Red Sea, with Moses as their leader. At the rear of the Hebrews were the pursuing Egyptians, who had orders from the pharaoh to wipe them out. Through Moses, God split the sea, allowing the Hebrews to pass through the sea bed and subsequently consuming the Egyptians.
God is adept at performing miracles when it seems that humanity has its back against the wall and all hope is lost.
“A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valor, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity, is manifest to us all.”Winston Churchill – June 4, 1940
I would argue that the evacuation of Dunkirk was indeed one of these miracles. It cannot be explained any other way, and was even described by Sir Winston Churchill as a miracle. While Dunkirk was not as spectacular a miracle as ones recorded in the Bible, it was still miraculous.
Hitler clearly had the tactical advantage in Europe in 1940. He had the British and French soldiers surrounded on all sides and could have wiped them out, but didn’t. Hitler’s war machine had reached too far too fast and his lieutenants asked that they not press on until a stable supply chain could be established. It was a momentary chink in the seemingly impenetrable armor of the German military.
There are the spectacular miracles that God performs Himself, and then there have been instances in which God used people to perform His miracles. At Dunkirk, hundreds of private boats aided in the evacuation – including fishing boats, small pleasure boats, and barges. These boats took on scores of troops, beyond the vessels’ intended capacities, and delivered them across the channel and back to British soil.
Christopher Nolan acknowledged the miraculous nature of the “little ships of Dunkirk” in the film with a wonderful shot of one after another emerging from a thick fog toward the men on the beach. It was one of those shots that sticks with the viewer because of the emotion behind it.
Though the Dunkirk operation was technically a retreat and therefore a failure in the war effort, and Churchill acknowledged as such, it was still a victory because hundreds of thousands of men remained alive – living to fight the Axis Powers another day and eventually achieve final victory. Dunkirk also strengthened the resolve of the British people to carry on the fight until the end and never surrender, as Churchill so famously stated.
God’s miracles can come in the most unexpected ways – from the parting of a massive body of water to the sight of a makeshift flotilla of private ships in the English Channel. But perhaps God’s greatest miracle was making Himself a man, living as one of us, and dying a death we deserved for our transgressions against Him. It seems that God, once again, performed a miracle when humanity’s collective back was against the wall and all hope seemed lost.
The Final Word
Dunkirk was a unique and fabulous war film. Christopher Nolan’s eye for original technique and storytelling has catapulted the war genre to greater heights. Like 1917, it was a film that wasn’t defined by its filmmaking gimmick, but enhanced by it. Dunkirk is definitely a film I will be revisiting over and over again for years to come.
Our God is a loving god who is not one to simply sit back at watch the world spin. He is a god who is fully involved in His creation, and has made His presence known multiple times in history with miracles. These miracles may not come in a way that we like or envision, but that is because we are part of God’s story, and not our own. May we always be on the lookout for those little miracles that the Lord places before us, and may we always be grateful for them.
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden,
James D’Arcy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance,
and Tom Hardy
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan