Heroes in a Sea of Victims

When the Academy counts its votes for Best Picture, the choice should be clear: Dunkirk. Last week it was nominated, but it probably won’t win. This is a kind of movie which defies the normal war film genre because it uniquely places the viewer in the action. It is not the type of movie the esteemed members of the Academy are likely to reward. 

Simply put, it is not some statement of a liberal political agenda. Dunkirk has made over $500 million at the box office against a budget of $100 million.

It is a high budget film which people have seen rather than the lower budget films seen only by those who frequent independent cinemas. Last year’s Best Picture, Moonlight, had an African American cast addressing LGBT issues. The year before that, the Best Picture Oscar went to Spotlight, a film about the intrepid reporters investigating the the sex abuse scandal of the Catholic Church. These themes are common among the elite who want to focus on the plight of minorities. In this era of the #MeToo movement, the liberal agenda is magnified in the films rewarded by the elite.

These movies address the plight of “victimhood” and “otherness” in a way a historical war film like Dunkirk does not. This is a story of heroes rather than victims. It does not make some bold proclamation about race, class, and gender which are the tentpoles of liberal ideology. Dunkirk is not an example of the liberal Hollywood awards contender film. It tells a gritty tale of war in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers were stranded along the beach at Dunkirk waiting for rescue. Instead of following the actions of a single character, writer/director Christopher Nolan chooses to examines the horrors of war through a mass evacuation of soldiers, facing certain doom.

The score and cinematography combine to create a high-tension environment throughout the film which promotes . The viewer becomes uncomfortable with each loud explosion and aircraft engine noises on all sides. The viewer gets a sensation of claustrophobia with those soldiers depicted in a plane or trapped in a ship. This produces a film that is almost hyper-realistic. There are also small details that bolster this. Nolan does not use grand soliloquies to elicit a response from the audience, but instead he uses the expressions on the faces of the soldiers to convey emotions.

The technical merits aside, the greatness of the film is dependent on its source—the real events at Dunkirk. These soldiers were heroes who faced death at every turn. But in spite of the dangers they faced, they fought for the safety and freedom of their fellow citizens. These were young men coming from the average citizenry of England. These soldiers fought to the very best of their abilities, even though many were drafted in rather than willing volunteers. The circumstances of this evacuation were not ideal. The soldiers had undergone a defeat and were stranded. Winston Churchill had hoped to rescue 30,000 of the men at Dunkirk—but the number saved was ten times greater: 300,000. In one of the film's most moving scenes, Kenneth Branagh’s character looks out to the sea, where hundreds of barely visible boats are approaching to rescue the men, and says he sees “Home.”

Nolan chooses to devote part of the film’s story to a father, who already lost one son in the war, and takes his youngest son and his son’s friend on a trip to Dunkirk in his own boat. Home is not merely exemplified by the land, but mainly can be seen in the bonds held among patriots. Three individuals went into danger even though they were not soldiers. This example shows how extraordinary these citizens were and they represent the multitude of ordinary people who did extraordinary things at a time in which nothing less would suffice.

Dunkirk illustrates the tragedy of war, but also the triumph of man to overcome the worst possible conditions. Home came for these soldiers. This is the tale of the average citizen who had to fight. In the face of a crushing defeat that led to a massive evacuation, the people came together to save their men and continue the fight to save their country.