Dunkirk: Humanity in War Films

Christopher Nolan’s new film, “Dunkirk,” appeared in theaters July 21. The movie was both entertaining and thought-provoking, which in my estimation, makes it a solid film. In general, “Dunkirk” received good reviews: Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it a score of 93% and regular film goers on the site scored it 82%: both impressive statistics. “Dunkirk” was so successful partially because of Nolan’s intense depiction of the historic battle at Dunkirk and his trademark innovative approach to telling cinematic stories. However, while watching the movie, several questions came into my head which I could not shake. “Dunkirk” made me consider how we as a society tell stories of good and evil, and how as audience members, we must use caution when watching Hollywood depictions of real life stories.
The film told the story of soldiers stuck on the beach during the Battle of Dunkirk, simultaneously portraying stories of bravery and desperation in war. Given the minimal dialogue, the cast managed to portray their characters as both multidimensional and engaging. In a review in the Wall Street Journal, one critic said, “Christopher Nolan has created something new in the annals of war films—an intimate epic.” Nolan’s focus on individuals created a very intimate and impactful retelling of an overwhelmingly destructive moment in history.
It is crucial that stories of bravery and sacrifice are told, however, “Dunkirk” took this to an extreme, focusing so intently on an individual moment that it sacrificed the global context. Portraying the heroic acts of individual British soldiers, the movie sacrificed perspective on the complex interplay of different forces throughout WWII. In fact, throughout the whole film, not one enemy soldier is shown on film. All of the bullets, bombs, and airplanes must have had operators, since the film was set before the advent of most automated weapons. It seemed very intentional on the part of the director, Christopher Nolan, to never show a human face, or even a distant figure, behind the forces that were bent on destroying the film’s protagonists. I will pause to stress the fact that I am in no way proposing that the actions of the Nazis behind the attack at Dunkirk were excusable, but I am stressing the importance of recognizing that they were humans. By not showing Nazi’s as real people, Nolan erased the narrative that this war was fought between people, not between man and machine.
In recent years, Hollywood has produced innumerable movies in which human protagonists are pitted against machines, or animalistic aliens devoid of conscience. By portraying the other side of a war as inhuman, it becomes acceptable, even vital, to audiences to see the humans annihilate their opponents. Where this becomes really dangerous is when human beings are fighting a war against other humans. In that scenario, the writers and directors must convince the audience that characters are justified in killing their enemies and ultimately winning the war. Poorly done movies take shortcuts and use the audience’s emotions against them to gain sympathy for the characters, whereas good films dig deeper into the reality that life is more unsure, and people are not so easily categorized into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Nolan avoided all of that by simply ignoring the presence of a human enemy. The audience watches as our beloved characters fight to escape a beach riddled with bombings and open fire from airplanes, and we never have to consider that the Nazi airplane has a human in it. We must not allow the absence of humanity in films to desensitize us to the messy and tragic reality of a war fought between people.

Sources: rottentomatoes.com, wsj.com

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