Torment to Transcendence in Dunkirk: a Conversation

 From whence comes the power of Dunkirk, one of the most talked-about films of the summer?
Sep 1, 2017

Editor's Note: Earlier this summer noted filmmaker Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, The Prestige) released Dunkirk, the highly acclaimed—and quite moving—story of the miraculous 1940 rescue of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops. Surrounded by German forces, these soldiers helplessly wait on the beaches of Dunkirk, in northern France, safety visible from across the English channel. The film tells the story of their rescue from three perspectives: an infantryman fighting to survive, an airman on a mission to protect his comrades, and an everyday Englishmen who jumps at the chance to help his countrymen. But it's not the kind of war film we've come to expect. There is little dialogue, it manipulates and alters time to great dramatic effect, and in many ways it feels more of a kind with a film like The Thin Red Line than it does Saving Private Ryan. But it's an important cultural artifact of our time and so it seems only right to discuss it in this space and our friends Joshua Gibbs and Heidi White, CiRCE regulars, have done just that. Enjoy.

Please note that this conversation does include some spoilers.

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GIBBS: A film with a one hundred million dollar budget, a cast of gorgeous faces, and very little significant dialogue . . . A film which features pop superstar Harry Styles, massive explosions, a huge body count . . . A staggeringly loud film. . . . A summer IMAX blockbuster with negligible character development . . . To hear Dunkirk described according to its most readily identifiable qualities, one might think it was a Michael Bay film, and yet Dunkirk is an early front runner for Best Picture. What's more, Dunkirk is a film which possesses such storehouses of anxiety and desperation that I was nearly at the point of tears for the better part of its run time. From whence comes this power?

WHITE: Josh, that is a great question. A few things come to mind. Dunkirk explores the stark reality of the most elemental human dilemma: life versus death. You mentioned the lack of character development, which I find compelling as well. The truth is that I find it breathtaking. Characters in war movies almost always have back stories in the "real" world that ingratiate them to viewers, but not in Dunkirk. In fact, the only character with a memorable name was George, whose story arc ends in tragedy. Far from being a mistake, the nearly-nameless characters accentuate the ethos of the film, which explores the primal human will to survive in the face of inevitable demise. This is not really a film about war, but about survival. It feels more like Gravity than Saving Private Ryan. It is not a violent film, and we never see the face of a single enemy soldier. The "bad guys" are bombs and the sea. In Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan asks the question, "What will men do when they face death en masse?" The almost-anonymous characters never allow us, the onlookers, to forget that we have no reason to desire this one rather than that one to live through the war, and that when each human soul faces death, he faces it alone, even in a sea of others.

When encountering a Christopher Nolan film, I always feel a straining tension between humanism and nihilism. Nolan never glorifies suffering. Dunkirk is not a "band of brothers" film. Actions of compassion and solidarity are individual movements of the will that some, but not all, of the characters choose. Those who do so -- the pleasure boat captain, his son, the commander, the fighter pilot -- contribute to the salvation of others, which is what keeps this film from being the nihilistic manifesto it could have been.

Another aspect of its great emotional weight is Homeric. Like Odysseus and his men, these soldiers have been denied homecoming on the brink of their homeland, abandoned to the mercy of an implacable sea. "You can practically see it," breathe multiple characters as they gaze across the channel. The power of Dunkirk is in how viewers enter into the universal longing for home in the teeth of encroaching death.

GIBBS: I appreciate your Gravity comparison. While not exactly avant-garde, Dunkirk is not a traditional film. It is less a film than a poem, perhaps like “Nothing But Death” by Pablo Neruda or “Charge of the Light Brigade” by Tennyson, neither of which has characters, but image and spirit only. Dunkirk compares favorably with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, perhaps, as a movie which features human beings, but not characters. And I agree on your point that Nolan has not thrust obligatory backstories into the narrative in order to "ingratiate" anyone to us; a lesser director would have given everyone “the things they carried” . . . The pilot would have a photo of a girlfriend, the kids in the hull of the ship would be gripping rosaries their grandmothers left them (replete with sentimental flashbacks that occasion breaks in the action), and we would cut back to Emma Thompson in her London flat, gazing worriedly at a photo of Kenneth Branagh on their wedding day. Nolan’s script is brutally sparse, though, and he assumes we all know the deal. “Don’t make me show you pictures of girlfriends being tucked into pockets. You’ve seen a war movie before.” Most of Nolan’s human beings are scaled back to their most primal, most bestial instincts. The “home” which is appealed to several times in the script is not a place where wives reside, where children wait praying, where roast beef is served on Sunday. “Home” is home base, the lair, the hole in the ground which renders a creature briefly impervious to predators. The order which holds the film’s universe back from chaos is neither god, nor religion, nor patriotic duty, but raw Wagnerian will.

I have, I will grant, slightly overstated my case, for Dunkirk is also a dynamic film, and I think there were several moments where someone or something was lifted above this near State of Nature. On what occasions, Heidi, do you think the film lifted its heavy head?

WHITE: I love that you connect Dunkirk to poetry, especially "Nothing But Death" and "The Charge of the Light Brigade." These two poems are markedly different from one another. "Light Brigade" memorializes a brigade of soldiers charging to their deaths in a doomed attack, while "Nothing But Death" explores the "darkness, darkness, darkness" of the grave. It is an especially compelling connection to Dunkirk as Neruda uses nautical imagery throughout his poem: "like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves," and, "death is waiting like an admiral." These poems are pertinent to the discussion because each embodies an opposing point of view on death: glory versus despair. This highlights what you beautifully describe as the film "lifting its heavy head" in specific moments above the State of Nature.

You and I both believe that Nolan's films are haunted by a taut strain between nihilism and humanism, which feels less like Nolan is making some kind of point and more like he is wrestling with personal demons. Because of this, I believe Nolan's films capture this aspect of the prevailing spirit of our age. The moments in Dunkirk in which human beings intervene on behalf of others are moments of illuminating grace, because the film makes it clear that there is no reason for these characters to do so other than madness or love. Moments like this arise from the bleak narrative with poignant mercy: the look on Tommy's face when he notices the French soldier tying on a British boot, the French soldier opening the hatch to save his drowning shipmates, the pleasure boat captain's son's clipped nod when the shell-shocked soldier inquires if George will be alright. Yet above all, of course, it is the fighter pilot. Josh, I would love to hear your thoughts on what happened in the air.

GIBBS: Why does Farrier (Tom Hardy) decide to give up his life for the life of his friends? We should begin with the ideal answer, that his heart is possessed with that love about which Christ claims there is "none greater" (John 15:13). I am content Farrier will be judged by God according to such a standard, according to such leniency. I am not content Christopher Nolan has a firm grasp on why Farrier consigns himself to the next life after such a brief moment of consideration. You are entirely correct in assessing Nolan, Heidi. He is torn between a great love and a great hate for mankind. He is frustrated by the difficulties of pursuing philosophical integrity, but he is unwilling to surrender his claim on transcendent meaning.

Farrier has no family to speak of. He has no wife and no children and no friends. Nolan lays Farrier bare, reduces him to nothing, places him in a vacuum. He is not dying for known persons, but unknown. He has nothing but a mission. His only source of self-respect is in honoring the labor which has been assigned him. While he could try to land the plane safely, for what? For who? If he saves his own life, his own life is no longer worth saving. If he chooses to live, he will live in self-loathing. He may die spiritually or die physically, and he chooses the latter. In Farrier, Nolan gives us a moment of sheer self-overcoming; Farrier “forces himself to do good,” as the Church Fathers say.

In his act of selflessness, Farrier becomes an angel. While I know a plane can fly so far without an engine, still, Farrier’s engineless flight is noetic, mystical. Farrier himself keeps his plane aloft. His virtue makes him lighter than the world. Having become his plane, Farrier sets fire to his plane and ascends in sacrificial smoke. That engineless flight is also a divine gift; in the same way God restores Samson’s strength in the closing moments of his life so that he might kill his enemies and die himself, so God keeps Farrier’s plane aloft. Farrier prefers to be captured and tortured than to crash his plane in the sea for the sake of elegance, beauty, honor. To burn a thing is to return it to God, and if his plane (his life) is to be treated with respect, it must be given a fitting funeral, not fearfully scuttled. This is, at least, part of Farrier’s contradictory story.

Weeks after seeing the film, I am still struck by Farrier’s engineless flight. What were your thoughts when the engines finally went out? And why was Tom Hardy chosen for this role?

WHITE: When the engines went out, I expected Farrier to plummet into the sea. Throughout the film, I was overwhelmed not by the power of the enemy, who remained ever remote, but of the sea. It was the inexorable sea that swallowed the soldiers whole, pummeled their frail bodies, forced them out of hiding into enemy fire. It was the sea that isolated them from home. The action and energy of the enemy was not to kill the soldiers with weapons of war, but to use those weapons to maneuver the allied army into the depths. If the sea is the raw power of nature that devours man without intention or regret, then it seemed fitting to me that Nolan would thrust his stoic hero into the sea after his moment of lofty but lonely glory. It would have been a poetic, albeit predictable, ending consistent with Nolan's apparent philosophy and the earlier ethos of the film. When the engineless flight transformed from a heroic moment into a mystical journey, I was at once startled and enchanted. Your phrase captures it: "his virtue makes him lighter than the world." It transforms the film from torment to transcendence. Without the mystery of the invisible miracle happening above the heads of the earth-bound soldiers, the film remains typical Nolan: a study in whether or not suffering humanity should be saved. It is a good question for modern man to face, but stoicism has never been sufficient to that task. Yet Farrier's engineless flight is an operation of grace that occurs after an act of mercy, which raises new questions that take us beyond stoicism into transcendence. I confess that I was taken aback, and mesmerized.

However, the burning plane haunts me still. Was it a burnt offering for the life of the world, or was it empty self-immolation? At face value, Farrier merely protected the technology of his equipment from enemy analysis, perhaps because he could not face suicide. You and I both know that is not the whole story, but is the burning plane an icon of grace or a statement about the inevitable disintegration of heroic action?

GIBBS: So far as Christopher Nolan can tell, the burning plane is both burnt offering and self-immolation. Artists as sophisticated as Christopher Nolan do not craft genuinely ambiguous endings. If the ending is ambiguous, it is neither light nor dark, but both. As you suggested, Nolan is not a person who knows if he believes in man or if he believes in nothing. Farrier's ambiguous departure from the film echoes the ambiguous final shots of The Prestige and Inception. Does the top fall at the end of Inception? Yes and no. Is Robert Angier dead at the end of The Prestige? Yes and no. So much great Western literature is driven by a central contradiction which forever grinds away at the audience. The greatest icon of this contradiction is in the myth of Tristan and Iseult. Does Tristan sleep with Iseult? Yes and no, for there are two Iseults. However, there is really only one Iseult, and this is the vexing secret to the story, and Tristan keeps a contradictory relationship with this woman. Nolan is not exactly veering so sharply towards such mythic contradictions, though his work is informed by traditional Western narrative-illogic.

Before we close, Heidi, can we speak of George for a moment? In George, we have a character with a history, something of a back story. He dies tragically, ingloriously, first going blind -- an impairment perhaps revisited at the end of the film when an old British man hands care packages out to returning soldiers, quietly remarking, "Well done," to each. His failure to look the soldiers in the eye is confused for shame, though I thought he clearly had the vacant, off-kilter gaze of a blind man. Did you make this connection, as well? And what does Nolan think of George? Does he pity him?

WHITE: As you mention, George is unique in the film. Instead of being one in a sea of isolated, disillusioned soldiers, George is the only character who has a life outside of the war into which viewers can glimpse. His name is repeated multiple times while the other characters, even ones who play a much greater role, are nearly nameless in the sparse dialogue. Nolan highlights the humanity in George. George is an ordinary young man who wants to be a hero. "I can do some good," he tells a concerned Dawson as he leaps lightly aboard the commandeered pleasure boat. George is who the soldiers used to be. In George, Nolan gives us someone who believes in his own capacity to impact the darkness. In what is arguably the most tragic death in the film, darkness conquers him instead. When the traumatized soldier lashes out in rage and injures George, he embodies the senseless destruction of war on an emerging generation. The injury leads to blindness and a silent, lonely death. There is no glory in George's solitary death. He did not even impact the rescue operation. Everything happened as it would have done if George had not been there. Yet he is honored in the local paper as he had wished as a boy, while Farrier, whose stoic heroism saved thousands of lives, remained unknown and unsung. Is this nihilism or humanism, judgment or grace, submitting to darkness or pushing it back? As you point out, Josh, it is often more difficult to identify the differences than it might appear at first glance. Such is human life in the suburbs as well on the Dunkirk beach.

Dunkirk is not a good film, but a great film, crafted by a consummate writer/director at the height of his powers who is asking essential human questions in our barren cultural landscape

Also to your point, the old man handing out blankets at the end of the film with the quiet blessing that every Christian recognizes and desires is also a mysterious contradiction. Like you, I assumed that he was blind. When he says "well done," is it meaningless or transcendent? For George, blindness is a harbinger of approaching death. The old man, however, offers life. He welcomes the soldiers home. Perhaps his blindness mirrors the emotional distance of those left behind, and perhaps blindness is the only lens through which those at home can perceive the horrors of war without losing their humanity.

Josh, I want to know your thoughts on the last scene with Tommy and Alex on the train.

GIBBS: The boys on the train make for a tough ending. Having escaped by the skin of their teeth, they return to a very uncertain England. The war is hardly over. Several times in my life, I have believed I would die soon, but after the tests came back negative or the plane landed safely, I quickly had to resolve myself to the fact that I had to keep living. While the thought of dying soon is terrifying, when a man doesn't die, he is faced with all the earthly problems he might have escaped. "Bills to pay, machines to keep in repair, irregular verbs to learn..." Those boys drink their beers and read the newspaper and the feeling of exultation at having made it out alive dies away pretty quickly.

Heidi, how do you think this film will age? Will Dunkirk settle into the upper echelon of war films, like All Quiet On the Western Front and Full Metal Jacket, or is it destined for someplace lower?

WHITE: That is a good question. Perhaps I might answer it with one of my own: If Full Metal Jacket was produced today, how would it age? If I were to venture a guess, I think it might create a sensation and then ebb into the background, as I suspect Dunkirk will. Like Dunkirk, Full Metal Jacket is unique among war movies. If it had a twitter account, it might hashtag #first, which solidifies its place in the annals of masterful war films, but Dunkirk comes too late for that distinction. They are very different films, but they each depict war as hell, which is not necessarily popular viewing for the average American's Taco Tuesday. So I predict that millions will see the film and rave about it, then return to watching The Notebook.

Additionally, I would argue that Dunkirk is too great a film to be remembered by the general public as a good one, while Saving Private Ryan is both. With today's high standards of production contrasted with the average viewer's, well, average sensibilities, good movies keep getting better and bad movies keep getting worse. Dunkirk is not a good film, but a great film, crafted by a consummate writer/director at the height of his powers who is asking essential human questions in our barren cultural landscape. I hope that I am mistaken, and that Dunkirk does become immortalized in the short list of premier war films. It certainly deserves it.

As the Dunkirk credits began to roll, I recalled the closing moments of 1995's Seven, which fades to black with a voice over by Morgan Freeman's character, William Somerset. "Ernest Hemingway once wrote: The world is a fine place and worth fighting for. I agree with the second part." For many reasons, not the least of which is the quote within a quote, I find this a fitting tribute to the complexity and humanity of Dunkirk.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs. 

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