By Caleb Bobrycki
Image Credit: Warner Bros.
When the British and French allies are surrounded by German forces on the island of Dunkirk, they must escape home, or home must come for them. Director Christopher Nolan, many are saying, has created his magnum opus in his latest title. He has waited till the proper moment to make his passion project, being it is such a dark moment of history, but the wait was worth it: Dunkirk is a masterful, creative, and thought provoking story of despair and hope, told at breakneck speed. The film’s greatest achievements are also the dislikes of some. The short runtime calls for a creative timeline, which people may find confusing; the situation makes the whole movie feel more like a third act, and for some this is too fast-paced; and, finally, the focus on survival calls for a lack of character. Some audiences have complained about this lack, though I feel this aspect of the film is the strongest, and is actually a theological point: sometimes, all we need to know about people is that they are trying to survive.
We Are All Trying To Survive
Dunkirk takes a “show, don’t tell” approach to its story; instead of characters sitting around describing themselves through dialogue, Nolan decides to show who they are based on the decisions they make in dire moments. This is classic cinema. And when is the “show don’t tell” approach more appropriate than in a film like this, when there is no time to shoot the breeze? Disaster, survival, and war movies are great opportunities to show how characters act rather than tell the audience about them through dialogue. The main theme brought out in this “show” approach is that all human beings are trying to survive at all costs.
There are a few things that all people, Christian and non, surely believe in: everyone sins, dies, and wants to live; this last point is emphasized in Dunkirk. We should not miss an important conversation at the end of the film: the citizens rejoice when the soldiers make it home. Yet, a distraught soldier remarks, “But all we did is survive,” to which a civilian responds, “That’s enough.” How does the church take this? On the one hand, survival is enough; on the other, it is not. We know that all people have a built in hope, yet it is not sufficient to bring about any lasting significance to human existence. Certainly, survival is a great starting place, but it is not salvific. This is important when it comes to evangelism. The need for survival is “enough” to know about someone, especially when sharing the gospel. One can surely undervalue getting to know someone, however we must not forget that no matter someone’s background, every person is sinful, will die, and wants eternal life; the gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to all these.
Dunkirk is helpful in identifying that the most obvious thing to know about our main characters is their desire to live, and that makes them human, regardless of whether or not we know them personally. The church needs to remember that, in good times and bad, all people want to live, and our job is to show them that the desire for survival points to something greater and eternal. Let us make haste to call all peoples of different backgrounds to the fulfillment of the longing to live; let us call our neighbors to our one true hope: “Christ in us, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).