Intrigued by the hype surrounding Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, I bought a ticket and packed in with other excited summer moviegoers to be met with a series of astonishing visuals of sinking ships and smoking planes against pale, perfect skies—scenes in which the audience flew along with nameless WWII pilots, an illusion enhanced by the IMAX screen and speakers so loud that every explosion rattled the theater floor. The film was a captivating portrayal of a pivotal historical moment, one that dictated the course of the Second World War and of the global history that followed. Yet, one must question the real value of this experience for the average audience member.
Such war movies serve several purposes; before seeing Dunkirk, the primary one I would have cited would be action-packed, somewhat mindless entertainment, given the sparse dialogue and generous violence characteristic of movies in this genre. While this movie may fall into the first trapping, minimalism seems intentional in this film, given its notable lack of gore. The film does not shy from depictions of peril and hopelessness and lingers on shots of emotionally destroyed, empty-eyed men, but most deaths are implicit, off-screen, and almost completely bloodless.
The decision to present a war movie with minimal gore in a genre known for grotesque scenes stems from the aim of the movie itself: not to entertain with dark humor among bloody, muscled men, and not to demonstrate how badass war itself is, but to convey the emotional toll and undeniable heroism of a single historical moment. Dunkirk portrays helplessness when men duck unprotected from overhead explosives and tenaciousness as the soldiers persist in their camaraderie and basic decency despite the onslaught of horrors.
Unfortunately, somewhere between its visually entrancing cinematography and slow, gripping pace, it becomes easy for audience members to forget that what they see actually happened. Real men drowned and shot people and got shot at, and no amount of watching from comfortable movie theater chairs or even intelligent discussion about the film after can truly honor that. While it's important to remember what people of the past did to protect their world, it is hypocritical to say we respect those sacrifices when we do little to protect our own world today.
It seems not many people would discuss current conflicts as eagerly as they enthuse about the events leading up to and following the Dunkirk evacuation late in the spring of 1940. Why must we wait until world-changing events are history before the average person is interested enough to spend $18 on a movie ticket to see them unfold? Dunkirk made $50.5 million in its opening weekend by glorifying the efforts of people who cared deeply about the state of their world. By contrast, Al Gore's The Inconvenient Sequel, a film that conveys the very pressing need for modern audiences to care about the biggest global conflict of their own time, climate change, made $1.49 million in its first weekend and was met largely with disinterest.
Valuing the efforts of our predecessors in jarring and memorable movies like Dunkirk is important to sustaining our collective cultural consciousness. However, our inability to care as fully about the issues of our own time—evidenced not only by the poor box office performance of the most pointedly political film of the year, but also the fact that the audience who did show up to see it at the local theater consisted mostly of concerned citizens above the age of 70—reveals an unsettling truth about the average moviegoer. Many are content to simply glamorize the heroism of those who fought for the world left for us. It is not just worrisome that no one wants to engage with the international problems of today, but disrespectful to the very people we adore in movies who ensured that we could inherit this planet that we continue to destroy.