Dunkirk - Review By Dj Murphy

Earlier in the year, I reviewed and commended Christopher Nolan’s excellent film, “Dunkirk”, noting in conclusion 
there is much material for inspiration and a host of lessons that can be learned from the history behind the film, the film itself, and even what went into making the film. Leaders in particular would stand to benefit from a careful viewing and pondering of Dunkirk.
With the release of the film to DVD, now seems the appropriate time to keep my promise and add some personal reflections to my earlier review. 
When I went to see Dunkirk, I knew I was going to watch a film that – if done well – would challenge and inspire. It did not disappoint. The story of Dunkirk the event and the story behind Dunkirk the film doubtless speaks illustratively into any number of perceivably analogous scenarios, but my own reflections are primarily with reference to Christian life and ministry. I am after all, a Christian, and have now been in pastoral ministry for seven years.

The story 
Dunkirk can be summed up like this: great danger, small boats, nameless faces, faithful service, and great salvation. You will not open a history book and find recorded in a cast of memorable names or particular standout character. When you walk away from the film, I doubt you will vividly remember the names of even the main characters – more likely the actors who played them, thus in conversation “the Kenneth Branagh guy”, “the Tom Hardy pilot”, “Mark Rylance’s part”, and so forth. The point is not, nor was it ever who these extraordinary men were but what they bravely did. A beach-load of thousands fleeing defeat, facing death, and fearing the destruction of their very nation were safely evacuated. The evacuation’s success far exceeded official expectations because of critical support from a fleet of small fishing and pleasure boats commandeered not only by Naval officers, but also captained by ordinary men voluntarily and stubbornly doing their bit for King and Country. The names of the brave men in boats are not remembered, nor are those of the beaten men on the beach whom they saved. What is remembered, is “the spirit of Dunkirk” that saw not the projected 30,000, but a staggering 338,000 men saved. 
John Benton makes a connection from history to church life, which I would hope any church leader would find fairly obvious. In the epilogue to his very helpful little volume, Why Join a small church?, he writes ,
Just so, the church today is involved in a great rescue operation, seeking to save the souls of men and women. And just as at Dunkirk, it would seem that the ‘little ships’ (small churches) have a crucial role to play. 

Benton is not saying – nor am I! - that “only small churches are crucial”. Rather, “small churches are crucial also”.  Churches of all sizes matter, but I seldom come across any strong, particularly influential sentiment that belittles big churches and can be weaponised into their closure. On the contrary, one could easily get the idea that the only churches worth attending are big churches, that the only preachers worth listening to are pastors of big churches, that influence is only possible with size, and that impact comes with numbers but is unlikely before then. Coupled with this adulation of big churches, is a procrastination to plant or revitalise churches that start small and a denigration of churches that are small.  It sometimes seems as though churches are not worth planting if you don’t have a starting group of at least 50 and a full time leadership team, that churches are not worth keeping open if they dip below 30, and that the church might as well be completely dead or non-existent if it consists of five to ten. People begin to think not in terms of “15 Christ-followers committed to worship Jesus, love each other, and reach the world with the gospel” but “only 15 people”. 
Some notion of contextual relativity exposes the church size wars in all their narcissistic ludicrosity. There are times and places where to have a gathering of 25 - no, even 10 people! - is really quite good. I have been a member of two churches that numbered well into the hundreds: to some, they would be very large churches indeed, to others, not so much. I have also been a part of planting churches from next to nothing apart from a preacher, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit. The truth is, there is always a larger church to look up to or a smaller church to look down on, but shouldn’t all of us instead be looking away from ourselves to Christ the head of the church? Of course, when we look to Christ, we learn not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought (Romans 12:3) and to humbly consider others as more important than ourselves. When we do that, we begin to discover and appreciate the power of small things in the plan of God. That people all around us are shunning the large and the corporate for the local and the communal would seem to indicate that realising the potential of small churches, is seizing a strategic missional moment for God’s glory in the advance of the gospel. 

The Story-teller
Not only are there apparent lessons for church life in the story told by Dunkirk: for those, like me, who are casual film enthusiasts and might know a few details from behind the scenes of the film’s making, there are lessons to be learned also from the story’s teller, director Christopher Nolan. These lessons are balanced in the tension between the gifted director both sticking with the tried and trusted and breaking the mould when film-making.
Sticking with the tried and trusted
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “you don’t need to reinvent the wheel” may be worn and tired idioms overused to the point of being cliché, but that could be because in certain contexts they communicate generally good advice. It would seem that when Nolan builds a good team for one project, he brings some of them back for other projects. It does not take a particularly deep look at the names involved in the film to see this. Perhaps the most memorable and inspiring of the characters presented in Dunkirk is Farrier, a brave airman played by Tom Hardy – who got his big break in Nolan’s Inception and returned to work for Nolan as Batman’s nemesis Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. While Hardy is the most standout of returning Nolan movie cast members, he is not alone. Cillian Murphy play a shell-shocked soldier picked up in the channel after his boat was sunk by a U-boat. He, like Hardy, was in Inception, and again like Hardy, played the Batman villain Scarecrow, appearing in each film of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. John Nolan, Christopher’s uncle, appears at the end of the film as a blind man and is recognisable from Nolan’s Following, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises, and the television show created by Christopher’s writer brother, Jonathan, Person of Interest. John’s daughter, Christopher’s cousin, appears as a nurse, having also appeared as a maid in The Dark Knight Rises. Even frequent collaborator Michael Caine (from Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar) puts in an uncredited appearance –the voice of Fortis Leader crackling through to give instructions to Farrier. Beyond the cast there are others like editor Lee Smith, who has worked as an editor for all of Nolan’s films since Batman Begins, and of course the composer Hans Zimmer, without whose scores Nolan’s films wouldn’t be the same. 
Nolan’s film making approach is in some ways very much “back to the basics”. He famously prefers practical effects to CGI, and of Dunkirk says “there's really nothing in the film that isn't in some way based in some kind of practical reality that we put in front of the camera.” Green screens are shunned for the gritty realism of the actual beaches of Dunkirk, real scenery, real ships, and real fighter planes. Nolan, consistent with his previous practice, eschewed the ever popular digital approach in favour of making Dunkirk with actual film. In one scene, water gushes into a fallen plane’s cockpit as the fighter pilot struggles to get out. Whilst filming, the plane sunk more rapidly than predicted – with the camera still inside. The footage was feared lost, but an old technique for preserving film that would otherwise be ruined was employed and the footage was kept damp on its journey back to development in Los Angeles – where it came out perfect and became a memorable and tense scene.

Doubtless the devoted could find more examples of Nolan sticking with tried and trusted people and methods. Wisdom would advise that this approach is no different to leading a church or fulfilling a wider church-related ministry, and beyond mere wisdom, the Scriptures would bear this out. Jesus had many with whom he spoke and interacted with, but a closer gathering of male and female disciples, an even closer group of twelve men, and a still closer group of three – Peter, James, and John. The cast of people Paul would have encountered is vast, and the names listed in the Bible quite large – but some are recurring, repeating their presence and role in his ministry across the years of his ministry and in different places. The lesson here is that good leaders work at building a solid team, having a core of trusted “dependables”. They could be family-members, friends from the past, or relatively newer acquaintances who have been given opportunities and proven themselves useful. If such people are demonstrably capable and qualified, accusations of nepotism or favouritism should be fewer, and in any case, easily disproven. Familiarity breeds contempt they say. Sometimes, perhaps, but it can also build collaboration and collaboration builds community, which is at the heart of church life.
As for methods, despite the oft-repeated saying that “the message never changes, but the methods do”, do the core methods really change? Do we move from Holy Spirit-dependent prayer in Jesus’ name to not praying? Do we move from text-driven and doctrinally rich preaching of the Bible to not preaching, at best giving topically based and doctrinally shallow presentations? Do we stop meeting together – in person! - for worship, fellowship, meal-sharing, and practical works of service? It seems to me that whatever new clothes the methods are wearing, the core of Christian prayer, preaching, and practice remains the same in essence, or should reform towards the same, as the methods God was pleased to use to spread the good news of the kingdom through his church across the known world 2000 years ago. 
Breaking the mould
Despite his obvious commitment to the tried and trusted, Nolan skilfully avoids the curse of sameness and breaks the mould – of other films and film-makers and even of himself. Paradoxical though it may seem, he does this in part by going back to the basics. It is both new and old to make movies using film instead of more modern, digital techniques. It is both new and old to eschew CGI visual effects for practical effects that are grounded in reality not a green screen.
Dunkirk is Nolan’s first war movie. It is one of the rare occasions the vast majority of a film has been shot entirely with an Imax camera, creating an immersive experience that is both beautiful and horrifying. Though non-linear story-telling is not new to Nolan, who has already bent time in various ways in films like Inception and Interstellar, it is not a common Hollywood practice and the format of Dunkirk is especially unique, as it takes a non-linear approach to relating history not fantasy. Some American reviewers noted how unusual it was to see a film about World War 2 that did not feature American armed forces. Some expressed their chagrin that there were no war rooms, no Churchill, and no back-room politics – but they miss the point of the film and part of what makes it so great. There is no build-up, the backstory is not laboriously retold, and there is no attempt to force character development – the film aims to show and tell a story about survival, not to make audiences feel they have survived the story’s telling. There is less dialogue than most films, but Dunkirk powerfully communicates urgency and intensity through its lonely silence and time-ticking soundtrack. Despite returning Nolan cast collaborators, there are also actors new to his films, veterans like Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance who for various reasons are not as widely known as relative newcomers like Tom Hardy. Then there is a cast of actors and extras almost certainly unheard of at any mainstream level – Fionn Whitehead, for example, who plays Dunkirk’s main protagonist and was as surprised as anyone to get the lead role in a summer blockbuster. And that is not to say anything about non-actors like singer Harry Styles, who was cast without reference to his musical fame. 
There are those who would twist the concepts of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “you don’t need to reinvent the wheel” to avoid any change or reform. The truth is, when it is broke it does need fixing, and if the wheel is actually rubbish and therefore not achieving the purpose or function of a wheel, it does need reinventing. Even if something is not broken or the wheel works just fine, that should not rule out addition, renovation, or beautification. The problem is not with change, but with wisely discerning what we change. When the very heart of something that was good and worked is needlessly blamed and meddled with, the opposite of the intended effect is achieved. So in the early 20th Century, before World War I when there was a slight drop in numbers attending church, text-driven sermons that exposed sin, warned of judgement, promised salvation in Christ, and equipped Christians for the harsh realities of life in a fallen world were often thrown out in favour of a doctrinally nebulous moralistic therapeutic deism and the Christian gospel of the kingdom was discarded for a much more Christ-less social gospel. As went the faith, so went faithfully gathering with other believers united in one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one heavenly Father. The churches emptied.  Obviously preaching was not to blame: it could be argued that not preaching or at best preaching without the resultant disciple-making, was. 
Churches should be faithful or return to faithfully preaching, making disciples, doing evangelism, engaging with the community, caring for those in need, expressing gospel truth and exhibiting gospel love. In continuing to do this, or in working toward this, they should consider things they should cut, things they should add, and things they can pencil in for a later date. The message and the core methods remain, but the means that enable that message and those methods to be most effectively deployed should be thought through carefully and relevantly to the local context. 
“When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them”, Dunkirk’s tagline says. This world is not our home, but home came for us and is with us in Jesus Christ. Home is still coming for the lost, the stranded, the trapped, and the defeated, and often it does so in the form of small local churches. Over 2000 years since the Incarnation of Christ, the church is still a new creation that swims against the tide of humanity and cuts against the grain of global norms. We are a cast of redeemed unknowns building on the past, living in the present, and working toward the future as we trust in Christ’s resurrection rescue of sinners and look forward to his returning triumph over all sin and suffering. May the small churches of England rise to the need of the moment and load their small chapels, hired community centres, school-rooms, library and village halls, and front sitting rooms with the rescued.

This week, I did something I don’t believe I have done before: went to see a movie in cinema for the second time. Of course, I had good reason: my wife hadn’t seen it. Even then though, that might not normally be enough for me to return to the cinema for a second viewing of a film. Only a truly exceptional film would be worthy. Dunkirk is a truly exceptional film. 

The latest, and arguably greatest, cinematic masterpiece to come from director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, Interstellar) is an immersive experience that expertly weaves together three non-linear storylines that finally meet off the coast of Dunkirk, where hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers have been trapped between the Nazi army and the English Channel and are awaiting evacuation. These narratives are clearly and helpfully identified with supertitles at the beginning - along with the length of time covered in their respective stories - as 1. The Mole (one week), 2. The Sea (one day), and 3. The Air (one hour). 

The first narrative is centred on the beach around one of Dunkirk’s moles – a large pier stretching out into the sea - on which thousands of soldiers are queueing to board ships for safe passage home. Incidentally, there are lurking suspicions throughout this part of the story that another kind of mole might be present – a German spy perhaps. Exposed to German gunfire and bombing, thousands of nameless faces crowd the mole and surrounding beach, some waiting patiently and others desperately trying to find some means of escape – queue jumping, suicide by drowning, or seeking out beached vessels abandoned at low tide. Who these men are, where they come from, and where – other than “home” – they are going is unimportant to the story and indeed would be a distraction. What matters is their survival. 

The second narrative takes place over the course of a day in the English Channel. The call had gone out for small sea-worthy vessels that could safely approach and navigate shallow waters to converge on Dunkirk to aid the evacuation. A man and his son are not willing to let officers from the Royal Navy commandeer their boat, so set out across the channel joined by a teenage helper who wants to accomplish something with his life. Along the way, they are encouraged to turn back and eventually are given good excuse. But they have a job to do. 

The third narrative takes viewers into the skies, where first three, then two, and finally one Spitfire fighter pilots battle the Luftwaffe over the English channel, and finally over Dunkirk. The pilots need to watch their fuel and make sure they leave enough for the return journey, but with the enemy threatening a sea of ships and boats and a beach filled with huddled masses of demoralised troops, returning becomes less of a priority. 

The story - among the most inspiring in history – is brilliantly communicated with a visceral, existential emphasis on the visual more than the verbal. The cast is impressive – not least because it is made up of thousands of extras, unknown or little known actors, actors known mainly for their work on stage (Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance), actors not known for their acting (boyband member turned soloist Harry Styles), and Tom Hardy (who was not widely known until his breakout role in Nolan’s Inception).  The cinematography is superb. The time-ticking Hans Zimmer soundtrack is tense, edge-of-your seat stuff that oscillates between foreboding and soaring.

Dunkirk is art that depicts a story of real life - and death - of defeat that somehow manages to be not only defiant but also oddly triumphant. As such, there is much material for inspiration and a host of lessons that can be learned from the history behind the film, the film itself, and even what went into making the film. Leaders in particular would stand to benefit from a careful viewing and pondering of Dunkirk.