Christopher Nolan’s transcendent Dunkirk is the best war movie ever made, because it expresses the stark reality of military life in a way that no other film ever has.
Hollywood’s been making war movies since the silent era. Most of these films emphasized straight-forward tactical operations, like killing enemy forces or achieving specific victories, but few have depicted the day-to-day and moment-to-moment lives of individual Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines.
Why is that important?
Since Vietnam, we’ve been at war far more than we’ve been at peace. So it’s invaluable to broaden our understanding of life within combat a environment, beyond the bullets, bombs, and hardware. Even though Dunkirk is a film about a specific event in Europe during the early days of WWII, its truths could be applied to any war in any era in any country. That’s what makes it so unique and so special.
The best movies open windows into worlds we’ve never seen (or don’t fully understand). The military is one of our most prevelant, yet most misunderstood sub-cultures, despite its constant presence in our contemporary news and entertainment. The reason is simple: few of us have served (there are just over 20 million living veterans today, or about 7 percent of the population). Consequently, we have a skewed understanding of what it means to wear the uniform during time of war.
Dunkirk offers a counter-narrative about war and service at an individual level, a perspective few war movies have attempted. Oliver Stone’s Platoon, David O. Russell’s Three Kings, and Sam Mendes’ Jarhead are the closest comparisons.
As a veteran, I can tell you that military life during time of war is 90 percent mind-numbing boredom, tedium, and repetition, offset by sudden bursts of outright terror and madness. Even when you’re not assigned to direct combat, there’s a prevailing sense that at any moment, your unit might be called upon — it’s a constant, harrowing, and terrifying reality. Most movies only cover the terror and madness aspects, and that’s woefully misleading.
We go to the movies to see characters overcoming obstacles to achieve particular goals. Yet Dunkirk is almost entirely absent of characters and dialog. Yes, there are actors playing specific roles, but they’re better viewed as abstractions or archetypes rather than specific individuals. This choice by Nolan pulls us into the film’s events because every character is an everyman.
Dunkirk follows multiple characters, each of whom is engaged in small but crucial tasks. They’re unified by a sense of duty and professionalism (except for a few who crack under the weight of it all). These may sound like mundane concepts — and they are in practice, I assure you — but this is where Dunkirk nails its core message: war is not won by individual heroism, victory is instead achieved by collective sacrifice, effort, determination. Everyone in Dunkirk, to one degree or another, contributes to this ideal.
Nolan’s film is a meditation on what it means to serve and survive in war. It shows audiences truths about the military that no other film has attempted, much less attained. Nolan imparts a simple wisdom: do your job and we’ll all be OK… well, not all of us, but in the grander scheme he’s entirely correct. And this film’s massive, worldwide success shows that audiences are hungry for such alternative points-of-view with regard to armed conflict.
For all of these reasons Dunkirk deserves the best picture Oscar and Nolan the best director. They illustrated that war is fought by common, unremarkable people who are asked to do remarkable, uncommon jobs under the worst possible conditions. Conveying such a simple, powerful truth within a thoroughly entertaining (yet sobering) movie is an incredible achievement. We really can’t ask much more from our films or our filmmakers.