History’s a lot less scary when you’re reading about it in retrospective. The outcome is certain, the perils part of the distant past, and the real-life heroes who stood up and were counted have received appropriate lionization (either individually or as a collective). Actually living through such events takes the fun out of them because we don’t know how they’re going to turn out, and when you’re talking about damage to the fundamental institutions of your nation, it makes for a lot of sleepless nights. Will Trump’s presidency end with a validation of the Founding Fathers’ checks and balances, or will it crush the American experiment in every way that matters? All of the options seem to fall under one outcome or the other, though with someone this erratic in the White House, the specifics are anybody’s guess. Trump’s supporters continue to sneer, but the rest of us have no illusions about the stakes involved… and frankly, they’re terrifying.
The arrival of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk at this particular moment makes for a bracingly pertinent history lesson, though the similarities to our current situation are subtle. It covers a war against an external foe rather than fellow countrymen gone mad, and entails a strategic military retreat instead of a righteous victory. But the stakes were as big as they come, and the outcome remained perilously in doubt to those who lived through it. Nolan’s film reminds us that others once felt as we do… and found a way to prevail when the world literally hung in the balance.
Dunkirk is actually more interested in individual experiences than a history lesson, keeping the big-picture elements brief and to the point. In the spring of 1940, with Nazi Germany about to complete its stunning conquest of France, the bulk of the Allied forces found themselves stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. The Germans, afraid of a breakout, called a halt to their ground advance, instead relying on the Luftwaffe to slaughter the cornered troops. That gave the British time to organize an extraordinary evacuation: requisitioning anything that would float and sending it across the English Channel to pull the men to safety. Thanks to their efforts – combined with Nazi second-guessing and general cowardice – over 330,000 Allied troops retreated safely to England to fight another day.
Nolan divides the story into three sections – land, sea and air – each with a single protagonist or group of protagonists for us to follow. A young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) searches for escape from the beach. An older man (Mark Rylance) and a pair of young mates take their weekend sailing skills to the Channel in an effort to lend a hand. A Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) patrols the air with his squadron for signs of the enemy. Each section entails a set amount of time (one week, one day and one hour), presenting the same events from different points of view, and shuttling back and forth in time to reflect the shifting perspectives of the same incidents.
As a technical exercise, it’s peerless, but Nolan’s choice of figures to follow – and their particular dilemmas – lends the film its pertinence to our current situation. He throws the notion of traditional wartime heroics out the window. Soldier and civilian alike are left powerless in the face of a seemingly hidden enemy who can come from anywhere at any time. We see very little of the Nazis beyond the periodic appearance of a few aircraft launching terrifying bombing runs against the sitting ducks on the beach. But we feel them inching closer with every scene: just over that dune, just under those waves, just around the bend. With nothing to fight back against, the British troops can do little but look desperately for escape.
Hardy’s pilot comes the closest to the wartime protagonist we expect: cool as a cucumber in the face of long odds, and resolutely destroying every German plane in his crosshairs. But even he faces the harsh realities of the situation, and his valiant efforts arise more as pro-forma resistance than some kind of noble stand.
In the place of expected flag waving, Nolan provides a workshop on the ease with which men can die in such circumstances. Drowning is the most common, but there’s plenty of room for bombs, fires and plain old-fashioned human stupidity. Vulnerability becomes the inescapable watchword, as men trained to fight and kill in defense of their country peer furtively at the horizon and wondering where the hammer is going to fall next… knowing there’s nothing they can do about it.
And yet they struggle on: looking for seaworthy vessels, holding out a hand to their fellows, or just fighting like hell to stay alive. Life equals resistance on the beaches, and while their commanders look for a miracle, the men below them ask themselves, “what can I do?” Get across the Channel somehow. Grab a buddy and pull him to safety. Plug that leaking hole in the hull of the boat. Just keep putting one foot forward… and when the call comes, step up to the plate and let the consequences to yourself be damned.
The film’s conscience arises during those moments, when a character chooses the better angels of his nature instead of deciding he’s done enough. “There’s no hiding from this son,” Rylance’s preternaturally calm old man tells the shellshocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) he’s pulled from the sea. Heroism arises from bleak necessity, and collective accomplishments never seem that powerful when they happen. Only when you step back and look at the whole picture does their extraordinary nature become clear.
And there’s no doubt that the world changed during that messy retreat from a collapsing nation. Not because the British waited for someone higher up the food chain to do the work, but because all of those little gestures started to add up. The “Little Ships of Dunkirk” numbered about 700, supplementing some 200-odd vessels from the Royal Navy. (Nolan used a number of them in the production.) Lifeboats, yachts and fishing trawlers – some measuring less than 15 feet long – simply did what they could. A dozen men here, a dozen men there, some poor bastard pulled from a sinking wreck… and all of a sudden, Britain had 300,000 fighting men home safe and sound. Men whose numbers gave their opponents pause, who kept Hitler delaying a land invasion of Britain, and who stood as living testament to the line in the sand that the Allies ultimately held. All of that came from thousand little steps, most by anonymous people who simply saw what was in front of them and decided to act.
Our current crisis is a long way from Dunkirk, but the lessons aren’t. The rolling disaster of Donald Trump in the White House means that attacks on our national institutions, ethical standards, and disturbing large groups of individuals can come from anywhere. That lack of predictability – that uncertainly – lends itself in part to people’s perceived helplessness at a situation that’s bigger than all of us. And yet we’re not as helpless as we seem, and while we’re not facing dive-bombing Stukas, the little steps we take to stop what’s happening can add up in a surprisingly fast time.
Trump would likely brand the men onscreen as losers for retreating; he’s certainly not shy about vilifying military personnel when it suits him. His Republican enablers in Congress have shown their willingness to let him run wild, even when he finds targets in their own ranks. He’s an ignorant man. Ignorant and cowardly. Dunkirk reminds us that we’ve seen that kind of enemy before. It doesn’t take a big gesture to stop them. Just a lot of little ones pointed in the right direction.