I am more than occasionally asked (as you may imagine): ‘Why Winston Churchill?’
I have my snap answer for those in a hurry: ‘He saved our world during World War II,’ and my book-length answer: ‘Read CHURCHILL STYLE: The Art of Being Winston Churchill,’ for those in the mood to really learn.
I don’t believe I have seen a better answer, though, to this ultimately ineffable question than the final minutes of the new movie, Dunkirk.
I’m going to try and share this without giving everything away. The film is a brilliantly executed immersive horror story that dumps us onto the beach at Dunkirk beside the defeated British Expeditionary Force, stranded and awaiting annihilation by the onrushing Nazi Blitzkrieg in May 1940.
With no preliminaries, the film’s director and screenwriter, Christopher Nolan, essentially grabs his viewers by the neck and shoves them face-down into the existential gore of this pivotal moment in history.
How does it feel to know that you are going to die and die badly, helplessly, and deal your own country perhaps a death blow in the bargain? This is a question that few of us will ever have to answer, blessedly, but it is a soldier’s question in any war and it was the decisive question at Dunkirk.
Nolan drags us down into this abyss and then through it. The quality of his film-making is exemplary. The cinematography is both microscopically and macroscopically breathtaking. The performances are uniformly fine and fascinatingly undifferentiated, despite the hunky male star quotient of the cast. One man is as good as the next – this seems to be Nolan’s essential point.
The enemy is virtually unseen but omnipresent. I have read criticisms of the film for this. ‘How can you create a film about Dunkirk and not show Nazis?’ Nonsense. Nolan shows us something more profound. He shows us evil. In doing so, he also defines for us the nature of good. Again and again, we in the audience don’t merely watch “good” being done or have it described for us in words. We feel it, as evil’s antithesis, from the depths to the heights.
Dunkirk is about outlasting evil. Tucked in our Imax-focused seats, we duck strafing Stukas, nearly drown beneath oil-enflamed Channel waters, soar through the sky on the wings of outnumbered R.A.F. fighter pilots, and confront, through Nolan’s cinematic craft, the scope of desperation and death and heroism that was Dunkirk. Finally, we arrive, breathless and exhausted, back in England alongside the 338,226 British soldiers saved by Dunkirk’s heavenly flotilla of small boats from home.
That is when we hear for the first time and the last time in this film the words of Winston Churchill. We see the faces of the soldiers absorbing those words. We realize, truly feel, what Churchill was leading the world away from and shepherding the world towards in 1940. We grasp what a leader with a spirit for the best in humankind, with a heart and a soul for good, not evil, can accomplish with just a few well chosen words and the will to back those words up, come what may.