A short essay exploring the unique portrayal of the film’s heroism and optimism. – Suburban times

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Submitted by Donovan Wilson.

“Dunkirk” is a slow-paced study on morale in the face of immense challenges and uncertainty. The story is then punctuated by moments of intense individual hardship that together help define British national identity.

I watched this movie right after watching “Saving Private Ryan” last Sunday. I like to watch movies back to back to highlight the differences in tone and storytelling. It’s a great way to help understand what deeper meanings are being conveyed.

“Saving Private Ryan” is different in many ways from “Dunkirk”, but one of the most striking is the personalities of soldiers and airmen in combat. The English pilots were cool and nonchalant. The crew of the civilian ship, enlisted to recover soldiers, were stoic, monotonous and intelligent. Compare that to the wild lineup of personalities portrayed in “Saving Private Ryan,” our English friends seem overpowered and in control of their emotions. It seemed to me like a kind of nod to a trait the English can appreciate in themselves, a calm and polite tenacity always ready to endure the most difficult challenges in the service of their people.

“Dunkirk” was also a much slower movie. Instead of being placed in the high-intensity urban warfare of “Saving Private Ryan”, we experience the slow fear of waiting to be rescued by a distant and invisible navy. The slowness was confusing at first. War movies are usually action packed. War films generally focus on the intensity and horror of war. From “Dunkirk” on, what we experience instead is the long, nervous anticipation of impending catastrophe.

Another critical distinction of the “Dunkirk” plot is the helplessness of the warriors. Warriors are normally the heroes of our war stories. Yet here they are trapped, they are foiled, they are afraid and they are at the mercy of someone else to save them. When our warriors are trapped, who is there to save them? In this film, we witness a reversal. The citizens, those who were to be protected and saved in the first place, are now enlisted to cross the Channel, in a tiny private armada, to save their warriors instead.

Jason Whalen for Lakewood City Council

Watched and experienced together, the facets of this story function like mythology. The film shines with a proud light illuminating a tenacious national identity that sees victory beyond defeat and redemption beyond loss. Always waiting for a moment when they will be victorious despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

If you would like to sign up for my new electronic newsletter “The Subcurrent”, with more short essays on cinema, use this link:
thesubcurrent.substack.com/

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