by Jeremy Fassler
Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s magnificent new film that opened this weekend, is both the best World War Two film in years and a moment for the Democrats and The Resistance to take stock in what victory looks like.
The film, based on the seldom-told (on film, at least) battle in 1940 between the British and the Germans, is an extraordinary account of the resilience that allowed one of the most devastating losses of the early part of the war to be spun as a moral victory for the Allies. The first eight months of the war were dubbed “The Phoney War” since none of the fighting had taken place on the Western front. This all changed with the Battle of France, beginning in May 1940, which led to the country’s surrender to the Nazis, and to the beaches of Dunkirk, where the city had been bombarded by the German Luftwaffe. Winston Churchill, who’d just become Prime Minister, told the House of Commons to expect “hard and heavy tidings” in the aftermath, but thanks to the military’s Operation Dynamo, and the many civilians inspired by love of country and a desire to help the Allied cause, more than 300,000 soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of France and brought across the channel to England.
You don’t need to know all this history going into Nolan’s film, since it is meticulous in establishing the situation, and it does so without ever cutting to a war room or to Churchill. Using three overlapping timelines he presents us with three perspectives: The Mole (the name for the pier where the boats docked), where we follow two ordinary British privates trying to get out; The Sea, where a mariner played by Mark Rylance gets on a boat to rescue soldiers; and The Air, where a pilot played by Tom Hardy (wearing an air mask and coat that remind us that, no matter what else he does, he will always be Bane) fights off the Germans with the little fuel he has left.
There is so much that this film captures better than any war film since Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima: the shell-shocked men who can’t bear the thought of returning to battle, the sense of danger coming even when the situation looks to be at its safest, the you-are-there verisimilitude, achieved by Nolan’s decision to shoot the film in 70mm and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera blocking; and the honest convictions of ordinary men like Mark Rylance’s Dawson, inspired by a duty to do the right thing. Rylance’s performance is the standout among the superb ensemble – he is able to convey so much empathy through his eyes. If this is your first exposure to his acting, you’ll understand why fans of his stage work, such as myself, regard him as the actor of his generation (sorry, Daniel Day-Lewis.)
But Dunkirk is more than just a great feat of technical filmmaking – the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan writ large – it is a reminder of what we can achieve in the midst of terrible times if we do not give in to despair. I am sure that when Nolan first came up with the idea for this movie, long before he had even made any of the Batman films, that he never thought it would be subject to interpretations related to our current political climate. Indeed, I’m sure everyone making TV and film right now didn’t think they’d have to answer questions about how it relates to this terrifying moment, but these are questions that artists can’t avoid, especially as our situation gets worse every day.
With so many positions in the federal government left unfilled, the threat that our President may fire the special prosecutor investigating his connections to a hostile nation, and the unsworn, sure-to-be-filled-with-lies testimonies of Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort in closed sessions, we must accept that we live in a country occupied by an illegitimate government, installed in a coup by the help of the Russians. While the Resistance has been able to take to the streets and speak their minds, the party that represents us lacks the courage to stand up for what it believes in (read Chuck Schumer’s blame-Hillary-first comments yesterday for a good example of this.) And yet, in spite of that, people all throughout America are ready to stand up and fight against the Republicans and Russian stooges holding us hostage. Look at the special election results in Kansas, Montana, and Georgia over the past few months: we should never have been able to compete in those elections, and we outperformed expectations in all of them. Yet we’ve allowed the media, alt-right, and alt-left to define these as losses, ome have internalized that self-loathing, saying we either “don’t have a message” or need to abandon the principles that allowed us to win the popular vote by more than three million last year.
I know, the lack of a tangible victory is frustrating, but the story of Dunkirk reminds us that we cannot allow the anguish of losing to distract us from the larger cause. A conservative told a friend of mine after the election how happy he was to see liberals cry, and I’m sure that the Germans would have loved to see the British feel demoralized after the loss at Dunkirk. Churchill, the generals, and the citizens who saved their soldiers didn’t allow that to stop them. Although he said in a speech afterward that “wars are not won by evacuation,” the moral victory of Dunkirk became a testament to the English forthrightness that would win them the war, as well as to Churchill’s brilliance in both deeds and words, since in that same speech, he made the famous remarks:
“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.”
The Allies took pride in what they were fighting for, and the Democrats need to do the same. We have a winning message – the belief that equality for all will allow us to prosper as a society. That is the next step in our evolution as a nation, and one that is going to take a long time to achieve, but we have to start now. We must take moral victories where we can get them and fight everywhere we can, and never let the thought that we lost deter us from what we know is right.
At the end of Dunkirk, one of the returning soldiers is congratulated by an older man handing out blankets. He says to his friend, “All we did was survive.” His friend replies, “That’s enough.”
Right now, we have to take a similar attitude. Things may be bad, but we are surviving, and that is enough.