(Spoiler alert: This is a review of the movie Dunkirk)
It is gray.
The windswept shores offer no comfort and the incessant waves pounding the shores mock them.
They are trapped.
400,000 of them.
Though a rearguard of British and French soldiers engaged in street-to-street fighting were valiantly holding the Nazi Blitzkrieg for a time, the noose was tightening. In late May, 1940, these men on the beaches looked across the English Channel praying for help. And they looked to the sky praying for mercy. But the screaming Nazi Luftwaffe dive-bombers offered no mercy. Only death.
In a turn of events neither the proud French Army or British Expeditionary Force could have ever anticipated, France was about to fall. What the Kaiser’s army could not achieve in the four years of World War I, Hitler’s army was achieving in six weeks. By pushing the combined forces to the barren beaches of Dunkirk, France with little hope to escape, the Nazi plan was for annihilation by air. In ruthlessly finishing his enemies, Hitler would have secured fortress Europe. And the only forces that could ever conceivably penetrate it again were about to be reduced to ash and rubble.
This is the Dunkirk Christopher Nolan shows us in his captivating movie of the same name. And while the history books can draw the arrows of attack and enumerate statistics of ships and lives lost, it is Nolan’s ability to place upon this massive backdrop of terror and hopelessness the penetrating stories of a young soldier and a commanding pier-master, a Royal Air Force pilot and a shell-shocked seaman, a middle-aged father and his boy.
In telling this story – a tale suffused with the gray-black of storm clouds and burning bomb-cratered boats, with suffocating moments trapped in the hulls of sinking ships or in the forever-openness of an imminently bombed beach – there was an inescapable message.
It came best from Mr. Dawson.
Mr. Dawson was a middle-aged Englishman with thinning hair. Wearing his navy wool sweater and perfectly cinched tie, he prepared his weekend boat, the Moonstone, to answer the call of the government. There are some boys in trouble at Dunkirk and the British navy was asking (or requisitioning) civilian boats to offer help in rescuing them. And so without hesitation, Mr. Dawson, his son Peter and friend George answered the call.
As they traveled the choppy waters of the English Channel, they happened upon a huddled figure seated and shivering on the inverted underside of a sunken ship. As they brought this soldier aboard and offered him tea and blankets, they realized that he was shell-shocked. He offered little communication except to correct that his ship was not bombed from above, but sunken by U-boats.
But it was when the shivering soldier realized that Mr. Dawson was heading to the hell of Dunkirk instead of England that he became frantic. The soldier insisted that the Moonstone turn around and return to England. Convinced that Mr. Dawson will do so, he relaxes. Before long, however, the soldier discovers that they are still headed to Dunkirk. Deeply agitated, the soldier confronted Mr. Dawson.
Soldier: You haven’t turned around!
Mr. Dawson (calmly): No. We have a job to do.
Solider: Job? This is a pleasure yacht! You’re weekend sailors, not the bloody navy! A man your age-
Mr. Dawson: Men my age dictate this war. Why are we allowed to send our children to fight it?
Soldier: YOU SHOULD BE AT HOME!
Mr. Dawson: There won’t be any home if we allow this slaughter across the Channel. There’s no hiding from this.
Mr. Dawson speaks the narrative that rests in the core of every character in this movie, and frankly every one of us.
We have a job to do.
Without question, every person in this movie is scared. And every person has the constant frantic impulse to save himself: Abandon your post, sneak on the ship, turn your fighter around, bring your boat and son back to England. Every single one wants to live.
But every character simultaneously finds the gnawing call to stand his ground. The commanding pier-master who will stay to see the French evacuated after the British are gone. The soldier who advocates for another about to be killed by a pack of scared soldiers on a sinking ship. The pilot who saves one vulnerable boat from a Luftwaffe bomber while dooming himself due to his fuel shortage. The father who keeps heading to Dunkirk in spite of the odds.
Dunkirk is not a story about courage. It is a story about duty. No figure in this story was unafraid; each simply did what he had to do in spite of being scared.
We have a job to do.
That’s what I saw when I watched Dunkirk.
With 30,000 men lost and 350-400,000 saved, the evacuation of Dunkirk has been dubbed The Miracle of Dunkirk. And that was largely possible because people did their job.
Dunkirk ends with the soldier riding home on a train reading aloud the speech Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave on June 4, 1940 at the conclusion of the evacuation.
I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
Or as Churchill once said at another desperate time,
“Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes you must do what is required.”
We have a job to do.