In “Dunkirk,” British soldiers during World War II fight to survive. (Warner Bros. Pictures/AP)
Many words have been written about "Dunkirk," the film by Christopher Nolan about hundreds of thousands of soldiers—most of them British—trapped on that long beach in Northern France with the German Army coming to slaughter them.
"Riveting" and "Oscar worthy" and "stunning" and so forth, and they’re all appropriate for this worthy film.
And because it is a great film, it should be seen in a theater. Don’t wait for it to show up on your home TV. You’ll only cheat yourself.
This one requires a theater screen to appreciate the span of it all, that long beach, the tiny men on it yearning for home, and that short ride across the English Channel; the rescue ships of the British Navy smashed by the German bombers, the British Spitfires knifing out of the sky.
So, there are many praiseful words for the movie, but after watching "Dunkirk," I wanted to add another:
Yes, decency is an odd word to pair with war. Nothing human beings have ever created and unleashed is more murderous than war, with death beyond measure, and so there’s nothing decent about the cost of it.
And yes, as "Dunkirk" is a film about the war, there is death in it, death that comes randomly, or is delivered with surgical dispassion, which makes it all the more horrible.
But a great film always leaves me quiet and spent when it’s over, and in a quiet moment leaving the theater, I thought about the decency in what I’d seen.
The decency of the young British soldiers waiting in impossibly long lines, quietly, standing out in the wind, searching the sky for enemy planes, praying for a chance at a boat to take them home.
The decency of their officers, who cared for them and who kept them calm.
The decency of British civilians, weekend sailors who answered the call and took their own fishing boats and pleasure craft, crossing the English Channel in a motley armada and approaching the murderous beach to save their soldiers, their countrymen, their boys.
The decency of a middle-aged father played by Mark Rylance, the owner of a small yacht "Moonstone" with his teenage son, played by Tom Glynn-Carney.
They crossed the channel because they had a job to do and they weren’t about to shirk responsibility. They didn’t do a lot of talking. They made no big speeches. But they did share a look. And that was enough.
And the decency of a British fighter pilot, finally out of fuel, making one last desperate run in the hopes of knocking down a German plane to save more lives.
The pilot was played by actor Tom Hardy; the commander who kept them calm was played by Kenneth Branagh. Yes they are great stars, but they were not the true stars in "Dunkirk."
The star of "Dunkirk" is the character of the British people at that time, in the worst days of the war, long before America joined in, when the British Expeditionary Force was humiliated in Europe and almost destroyed.
And so it is a movie about a people of a certain time, a people who knew who they were, a people who firmly understood their culture and their obligations to it, and to their nation, and to each other.
You don’t see or hear Winston Churchill in this film. You hear some of his words read by a solider on a train, but you don’t see his genius. All that happened after the troops were rescued.
The withdrawal at Dunkirk and what led to it was a terrible military defeat for the British Expeditionary Force. And yet, Churchill was somehow able to convince the British people that they had won a great victory by rescuing their men on the beach. He rallied his people. And that kind of leadership is pure genius, indeed.
If you see "Dunkirk," please don’t go expecting a typical Hollywood formula war film, with plenty of character exposition and back story. This is not a movie about cliched archetypes. You won’t find a platoon of Brits passing around photos of their sweethearts; and you won’t see the joker, the farmer, the ladies’ man or the upper-crust failure seeking to redeem himself. You won’t see a Cockney urchin who teaches the lads to survive.
"Dunkirk" isn’t built that way. It expects more of its audience. It does not condescend. It anticipates your intelligence and respects it.
And so it presents stories on the beach, and stories in the water, and stories in the air and expects you to follow without a guide book.
Though you won’t get to know the men by what they say, you’ll know them by what they do. Actions, not words.
And you’ll see details as death comes, the sound of paper in the wind, sea foam on the beach, the scratching of chalk on the dashboard of a fighter plane, the ping of a bullet, the panic of those trapped on a ruined ship as it tips, the sound of bubbles underwater, and of boys breaking the surface to find a sea of fire.
Not many films are worth the price. This one is.
But please don’t cram it into the end of a day when you’re tired or rushed. See it when you’re at your best. Respect it as much as it respects its audience.
And I know you’ll find the decency in it, too.
Listen to a new episode of "The Chicago Way" podcast with John Kass and Jeff Carlin, at http://wgnradio.com/category/wgn-plus/thechicagoway.