Soldiers are shown in a scene from the movie "Dunkirk." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. CNS photo/Warner Bros.

Lesson about hope in movie moment

  • August 25, 2017

There is one perfect minimalist moment in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk that forms an all-encompassing metaphor for our times.

Nolan’s film became the “talker” movie of the summer, equally criticized for its deliberately, even maddeningly, obscuring narrative structure, and praised for its power to evoke a crucial historical moment of the Second World War without lapsing into quasi-documentary style storytelling.

It does not merely tell the story of the miraculous rescue of the British Expeditionary Force from a beach in France in 1940. Instead, it offers audiences the experience of what it is to be trapped between the encroaching enemy and the sea with home visible and unreachable at the same time.

Watching, and trying to track, the episodic fragments that assault us from above, below and straight on, as well as in constant loops and shifts of time, is purposefully bewildering. With the enemy at their backs and the English Channel before them, we experience, as they did, what it feels like not to know.

They do not know whether boats will come to pluck them from the beach. They do not know if they will make it onto a boat if the boats do come. They do not know how close the enemy is. Perhaps most crippling of all, they do not know if those in authority have a clue what they are doing, or could do it properly if they did know. They do not know if they will live or die.

Watching, and trying to track this as an audience, our knowledge is but minimally better. We know, only because we have history to let us see, that the boats do come, that the rescue is made possible by miracle and against the gross incompetence of those in authority. We know some die, though many thousands more live.

Then into our knowledge a fleeting, weirdly incongruous tableau intrudes. Amid the disciplined military ranks of men in uniform waiting to be rescued or annihilated, one soldier breaks and takes matters into his own hands. He snaps, races down the flat hard sands of Dunkirk beach and dives into the waves. He begins, with suicidal flailing, swimming home to England. It is a gesture comprising equal parts madness and perfect rationality. Most compellingly, it seems a gesture of abject insignificance in the great sweep of Dunkirk itself.

No one in the film tries to save him. No one even remarks on his act. As members of the movie audience, were we to turn our heads toward some small distraction in the theatre, we might miss the moment it is so minimal, and our understanding of the narrative would not be impaired.

Yet in that minimalist moment is a profound dissertation on hope, and especially the Christian understanding of hope. In no way is Dunkirk an explicitly Christian movie. On the contrary, much of the opinion I’ve encountered about it claims it is fundamentally a movie of despair due to its emptiness of any reference to the sacred. Sustaining that claim, however, requires not just overlooking but actively denying the tableau of the suicidal swimming soldier.

What the moment opens is the possibility of seeing his act forward and backwards at once, that is from his perspective as he enters into it, and from our historic knowledge of what ultimately happens. Clouded by despair, he judges continued existence to be an exercise in futility. Shocked into the mental debilitation of solipsism, he makes the rational choice that it is better to die according to his own will than to wait futilely for inevitable death to come. He plunges into the sea as a way of saying to Hell with hope. We know his action is futile. Rescue comes. Hope is redeemed. Out of unknowing comes knowledge, but also truth.

Dunkirk’s truth is that the suicidal soldier died in vain by denying any knowledge greater than his own. To Christian eyes, of course, the minimalist, ephemeral scene encompasses both the nature of sin — i.e., the rationalist primacy of the autonomous self — and the outcome of abandoning the promise of salvation.

The metaphor could not be more timely in these days of great abandonment, reminding us that true knowledge comes only from authentic hope.

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