Let us begin at the end of the beginning: “Dunkirk” is the best film of 2017. It is an epic war movie, where names are neither memorable nor necessary because the scenes are unforgettable. And the suspense is almost unbearable, as the story is more about psychological terror than physical turmoil. The terror of aloneness. The terror of bombardment from air, land, and sea. The terror of abject failure, as the enemy attempts to destroy Europe’s only hope for freedom and drown England’s only chance to remain free. The terror of watching this epic unfold in record time (106 minutes), without having to hear the voice of Hitler or the shouting of the Nazi Hun.
“Dunkirk” uses minimalism to maximum effect. It shows us how inconsequential man is in the face of nature, while it proves how consequential men can be when they face—and overcome—the worst of human nature.
It shows us the actor Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier clinging to the propeller of a torpedoed ship, where each blade is as brown—and dead—as the petals of the biggest flower. He is a speck in the flotsam of the English Channel, impotent before the laws of physics and immobile before this unlawful attack of Nazi aggression. He is inseparable from that flower, which symbolizes his all-but-inevitable burial at sea. The terror of the sea is not its turbulence, but its totality: a seemingly endless expanse of water, unfit to drink and unrelenting in its drive to down whatever touches the surface.
Murphy is a tragic figure, as much a sign of God’s wrath as he is a reminder of what happens when men violate—and mock—the warnings of a prophet. That prophet is Winston Churchill. He speaks to us through Tommy, the everyman’s name of the British soldier from the Great War, when the boy reads the words of England’s greatest leader.
He reads them aloud, hearing for the first time what the audience listens to as the film’s final words; that “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.”
Restraint strengthens those words, creating in every English breast “a soul beneath the ribs of death.” The mace of honor fills each soul with the prose of duty, complementing the poetry of Churchill with the bravery of countless civilians. These are the citizens who set sail from the beaches and the landing grounds, so they may rescue the defenders of the realm. They are the defenders for all that Britain is, and all that Britain means.
They are also the defenders of Western Civilization, where many mansions house a common faith in the civic fate of laws, language, literature, and tradition. They are, above all, free men.
There is a steadiness to their approach, save a roar of national pride when the captain of a private boat says to his son’s friend, after hearing a trio of Spitfires zoom overhead: “Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. Sweetest sound you could hear out here.”
Sweeter still is the sound of the pilots in those planes. They economize everything, so they may execute their commands and command the skies against German dive bombers. They do not weaken or tire, not even when they go from three to none; not even when one crashes into the sea and the other, with Tom Hardy at the stick, lands on the beach as the Wehrmacht closes in.
We see more than moments of sheer terror, without the briefest periods of boredom. We see how war punctuates the sight and sound of peace. It screams across the sky, echoing from eight days during World War II to the first eight hours of the War on Terror. Read Ken Masugi’s review of “Dunkirk.”
Read Ken Masugi’s review of “Dunkirk.”
The choice is between entering the breach and walling up among the dead, because the time will come when we must stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood; when we must disguise our fair nature with hard-favored rage; when we must not dishonor our mothers; when we must attest to the worth of our fathers, and learn to wage war until victory is won.
Victory is never permanent, and peace without freedom must never be the price of victory. What is permanent is sinfulness—and evil. To defeat the latter we must be forever mindful of the former, so we will not be alone, outnumbered and outgunned, but never without hope.
Hope is its own victory. It can deliver us from costly errors and colossal military disasters. It can sustain us during our darkest days, so we may avoid an unbroken night of barbarism.
It is not the cheap rhetoric of the modern politician, whose record lacks moral health and martial vigor; whose legacy lacks distinction; whose sole distinction is the pursuit of power, while he is powerless to stop the most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened and stained the pages of history.
Hope lives on the beaches of Dunkirk.