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‘Dunkirk’ reminds us of our power of choice

“Dunkirk” (2017). Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, James D’Arcy, Jack Lowden, Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jochum ten Haaf. Web site. Trailers.

The horror of war is difficult to fathom by anyone who hasn’t lived through it, though movies have made earnest attempts to capture it, documenting what is, arguably, mankind at its worst. But imagine what it might be like if a film set during wartime were to take on the challenge of depicting humanity at its best under those same conditions. If you can envision that, then you have an idea of what transpires in director Christopher Nolan’s new World War II epic, “Dunkirk.”

In an attempt to stave off an aggressive German military advancing across Europe in 1940, British, French, Belgian and Canadian troops launched an assault on northern France involving 400,000 soldiers. Unfortunately, the effort proved to be a massive miscalculation, a strategic error that became all too apparent when Allied forces suddenly found themselves surrounded by the enemy. Based on orders from Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the military’s top brass (Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy) began organizing an evacuation to bring the troops home to Britain, with the soldiers assembling on the beaches and in the harbor of the French port of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) on the English Channel. Before long, however, the Allies became trapped, penned in by enemy ground forces and battered by ongoing attacks from the Luftwaffe, the formidable German air force. With nowhere to go, the soldiers became sitting ducks, and the Allied evacuation ships were easy targets for the persistent German assault.

The situation quickly appeared hopeless. But, miraculously, the tide turned when help arrived from an unexpected source: With word of the impending disaster spreading throughout Britain, everyday citizens came to the rescue. The owners of boats of all kinds – from yachts to fishing vessels to lifeboats – formed an impromptu armada, ferrying across the Channel to bring the boys home by any means possible.

“Dunkirk” tells the story of this seemingly improbable evacuation from three perspectives – the experiences of the soldiers on the beach (Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard), the heroic boat owners coming to their rescue (Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney) and the courageous Royal Air Force pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) caught up in dramatic dog fights with their German counterparts seeking to destroy vessels making their escape. Through these various story threads, audiences witness the nearly constant peril in which the Allies found themselves. At the same time, the film also depicts the many hard choices the troops and citizen rescuers often had to make to save their colleagues and, in some cases, just to survive. But, despite these ever-present dangers, there was also the valiant campaign of the citizen heroes to defy the odds and see their goal realized.

In telling its story in this way, “Dunkirk” thus shows humanity at its worst and its best. In doing so, the film simultaneously shines a bright light on the power of choice, one of the cornerstone principles that drives the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

As the scenario depicted here clearly shows, as human beings, we have a choice in how we conduct ourselves, based on the beliefs we hold. We can sink to the level of savagery that is war, or we can choose more reasonable paths to settle our differences. Likewise, we can follow a course of compassion and support to rescue those in peril, or we can save ourselves and leave those in danger to fend for themselves. Either way in either case, the decisions rest with us and the intents we hold that bring our materializations into being.

At the time of these historic events, the powers that be may not have been aware of, or purposely chose to disregard, our ability to choose. Instead of making reasonable, civil choices, those calling the shots opted for the pursuit of their own self-serving ends, regardless of the consequences, a practice known as un-conscious creation or creation by default. And perhaps we needed to go through these experiences to learn the folly of our ways for future reference (although some might argue we’re still sorely in need of learning that lesson). In any case, by presenting both sides of the coin here, we’re provided with clear depictions of each option. What we decide to choose going forward depends on how well we distinguish the options available to us – and ultimately which one we choose. Let us hope, based on the experiences showcased in this film, that we make the right selection.

Tackling this message in a picture like this is a rather tricky tightrope to traverse, but one it’s expertly executed here. “Dunkirk” carries this off through a superb, ever-suspenseful narrative that’s masterfully backed up by excellent cinematography, editing, special effects and sound technology, as well as an edgy, skillfully applied original score by Hans Zimmer. These elements are effectively combined to tell an epic cinematic thrill ride that truly knocks it out of the park.

Admittedly, I was a little reluctant to screen this picture. I’m generally not a huge fan of the war movie genre; older offerings (particularly classic World War II films) tended to glorify the subject, while more recent releases (such as those chronicling the Vietnam Era) have graphically and gratuitously addressed the issue with their far from subtle “war is hell” messages. “Dunkirk,” however, successfully manages to avoid those pitfalls. It’s relentlessly intense, to be sure, but it never becomes wantonly explicit. Director Nolan wisely leaves many of the unseen narrative gaps to be filled in by the minds of his viewers, a skillful use of one of the hallmark techniques of filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, who innately knew that his audience members’ imaginations could concoct images far more affecting than anything he could possibly show on screen. That’s smart filmmaking from a director who, after many noble attempts, seems to have finally pulled together all of the elements that go into the making of a great picture.

Those looking for movies with deeper meaning might not think this a likely candidate for such a designation. But, unless you’re an exceptionally sensitive viewer, don’t let the subject matter of this film unduly scare you off. There’s much to be said here about what it means to rise to our own greatness as a species, especially in the face of inexorably harrowing circumstances. It’s also comforting to see that, no matter how atrocious our behavior can be, we always have the capacity to make up for it through our power of choice and our wherewithal to opt for acts of heroism, altruism and compassion when confronted with the onslaught of tyranny. And that’s perhaps the aspect of the miracle at Dunkirk that’s truly most worth celebrating, one that we should make an everyday practice in everything we create.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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