Christopher Nolan's 'Dunkirk' finds grace in quiet decency and heroism in simple survival
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Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ finds grace in quiet decency and heroism in simple survival


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Welcome to our weekly series “Cry of the Week,” in which we highlight whatever moment made us ugly cry on our couches the most in the past seven days. 

That Dunkirk is intensely emotional, unbearably tense, and majestically shot is no surprise – this is a World War II drama directed by Christopher Nolan, after all.

What we didn’t expect, however, was that it’d also prove to be such a cathartic cry. 

From its opening moments, Dunkirk portends doom and gloom, and not just because we know how things turned out in real life. As a group of British soldiers make their way through the empty streets of Dunkirk, flyers fall out of the sky reminding the men that they’re surrounded on all sides by enemy forces, with little chance of escape or rescue. 

The situation only gets worse from there. Soldiers attempt to board one ship, only to get turned away. (The ship sinks soon after anyway.) They get on another ship, which promptly gets hit by a torpedo. They swim to a rowboat, only to be told there’s no more room. So on, and so forth.

Meanwhile, the military leadership on the ground know the men they’re with are basically doomed. And that there’s not much they can do about it.

But there’s someone else who can. 

This photo would look so much better in 70mm IMAX.

This photo would look so much better in 70mm IMAX.

Image: Melinda Sue Gordon / Warner Bros.

In desperation, the Royal Navy has commandeered hundreds of private boats to aid in the evacuation of Dunkirk. Even as we’ve been following the soldiers in their attempts to get off the beach, we’ve also been watching one of those boats, steered by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, magnificent) and two teenage boys, make its way across the English channel to Dunkirk.

The “Little Ships,” as they were called, show up on the shores of Dunkirk just as all hope seems lost. After the hour of tension and despair that we in the audience have endured – and Dunkirk uses every tool at its disposal, including Hoyte van Hoytema’s IMAX camerawork and Hans Zimmer’s booming score, to make us feel like we’re there on the ground – it’s enough to get the waterworks flowing.

It serves as a reminder that even when hope seems like a joke, even when darkness is closing in, even when your fellow humans have just shown themselves capable of breathtaking cruelty, humans can also be kind to each other. There are still, and always will be, decent people in the world who do the right thing – not for glory or profit, but simply because they want to help. 

Mark Rylance is human decency personified in Dunkirk.

Mark Rylance is human decency personified in Dunkirk.

Image: Warner Bros.

And it’s a reminder that if you want to be one of those people, you need to do the work. Courage and empathy don’t always come easily, but they’re worth the effort. If that all sounds rather sappy, that’s on me. One of the best things about Nolan’s Dunkirk is that it’s not particularly sentimental – it’s very much in the stiff-upper-lip, keep-calm-and-carry-on mode. 

Dunkirk doesn’t end when the ships show up. The enemy’s still active in the fight, and doing what it can to stop the Allied forces from leaving Dunkirk. There are harrowing moments ahead for our heroes yet. 

Eventually, however, some of the soldiers do make it across the Channel, where they’re greeted by British civilians. One of those civilians, an elderly man, congratulates a soldier.

“All we did was survive,” the soldier responds.

“That’s enough,” says the man.

Dunkirk is a war movie that finds its grace in quiet decency, that empathizes with the desperate and the despondent, that understands that simply surviving can be an achievement in itself. Some days, that’s exactly what we need.

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July 28, 2017
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