**This article contains spoilers for Dunkirk.**
In stories, we see ourselves, both as individuals, and as a society. This is one of the great powers of storytelling, and during crucibles—which tend to be times when people with the loudest voices try to control the cultural narrative—stories can help us process who we are. Crucibles like the hurricanes, mass shootings, and white supremacist rallies rocking our soil tend to define the cultural identity of a people. Not just in the crucibles themselves, but in our responses to them.
One such story that has recently helped me process my identity, and our cultural identity as Americans, is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. It is not a story about Americans, obviously, and I’m not trying to appropriate British history by making such a statement. But there is much to consider regarding the style of storytelling Nolan chose to relate what happened at Dunkirk. Storytelling is far more than just telling a story—much goes into the choice of style, format, and delivery, and Nolan was clearly deliberate in creating a movie experience with Dunkirk intended to subvert the war movie genre, stating he was not making a war movie, but a survival and a suspense movie. Any viewers expecting a typical war movie experience (sweeping panoramas, big gory battles, and an epic metanarrative) might be disappointed. Because in relating the account of over 300,000 stranded British forces trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk, in full retreat before an advancing German army, Nolan does not deliver on these expectations. What Nolan focuses on instead is the ordinary: three individualized experiences. There are no real great heroes in his film, just common ones, and he invites the viewer onto the beach, into a little boat, and into a fighter plane. He filmed these individual narratives in three parts, asking again and again, “Is this heroic? Is this? Is this?” To wrestle with each scenario, and each character—to walk or ride alongside them one-by-one—is also to ask these questions of yourself, and therefore to examine your own character, your own identity, your own place in our tumultuous society.Crucibles like the hurricanes, mass shootings, and white supremacist rallies rocking our soil tend to define the cultural identity of a people.
Although Nolan’s Dunkirk has plenty of nail-biting moments, perhaps most uncomfortable of all is a moment in the film when he pulls back the curtain and allows his heroes to be truly human. In one scene, a group of British soldiers, trying desperately to escape the beach, realize a French soldier has been among them all along. But the Germans are upon them, and one man needs to go in order for the rest of them to survive. In this moment of crux, their prejudice against the French “Frogs” rears up, and the very man who earlier had saved their lives on a sinking ship is the one they want to send overboard, to his certain death. Does this action mean they are wicked? Does it invalidate their own sacrifices fighting to save France in the weeks prior? It does, at least, reveal their sin nature, their common prejudices, and even the fear that binds them. And it causes the viewer to ask of himself or herself, “What would I do? What about me?” And if, “What about me?” then, “What about us?” Our individual sins, when we get together with likeminded people, tend to compound, not diminish. Sometimes they do so until they are kicked into a frenzy.
A now infamous rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past August illuminated this phenomenon. Emerging out of the literal shadows with a mix of tiki torches, Nazi flags, and Ku Klux Klan paraphernalia, hundreds of white supremacists came together to protest the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee. If you followed the news coverage, you would see us painted as a nation of intolerant bigots, divided by race. But then Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas, and images of rescuers—a mix of people, of all colors, helping women, children, and the elderly across racial lines—flooded the Internet, and those who had felt unsettled by the characterization of America as a racially divided, intolerant nation, saw their opportunity.
“We are not Charlottesville! We are Houston!”
On and on, across my social media timeline, I saw this message on display. And again, following Irma, similar messages. That’s not us. What happened in Charlottesville doesn’t define who we are. Look how heroic we are! We are not Charlottesville! And I’ve no doubt, in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, we will see a similar counter-narrative as stories of heroism emerge from that tragedy. Heroic stories in the midst of tragedy are not false stories. But they do not erase the stories that aren’t as easy to embrace about ourselves.
But it’s a curious thing, and in a way it’s a sad thing, this desire to wrest control of the narrative from the “other”—from the guilt, perhaps, or anger, or fear that we might actually be Charlottesville too. Just as the British soldiers at Dunkirk were actually prejudiced against the very French they were supposed to be saving. The prejudice is part of the story—it was part of their identity, just as Charlottesville is part of ours.
We cannot erase the ugliness of happened in Charlottesville by shining a light on the goodness of what has happened in the relief work following Harvey or Irma. The goodness happening across racial lines between the rescue workers and those they helped does not erase the evil of the white supremacists. The moral heart of America is not a set of scales that can be balanced out by some good done on one side against some evil done on the other—as if those in Houston or Florida can do penance for the wicked people who gathered in Charlottesville. Harvey and Irma were not the cleansing judgment of God sent to wash away our cultural sins. We are both Charlottesville and Houston—both the tangled darkness of tiki torches amid chants of “Blood and Soil,” and the battered national guardsman carrying the mother and child to safety through the storm. To deny one in favor of the other is not only disingenuous, but the very reason why Charlottesville happened in the first place. If we do not acknowledge our prejudices as well as our heroism, then we will be enabling our country to be a tyrannical state.
When I walked out of Dunkirk this summer, I had no idea what was ahead for our nation, but I did feel as though I was better equipped to examine myself—my little piece in the whole of society. The heroes of that film were, after all, ordinary people just like me. And who I am as a person and how I react to cultural crucibles says a lot about my character. These days, I cannot blindly choose my tribe without examination of right and wrong. I choose not to close my eyes to the evil of Charlottesville—or the evil within my own self—simply because I would like to believe my nation is better than that. Most of us exist in the realm of the day-to-day ordinary, and it is in the common banality of life that we find little challenges to be kind, or cruel, to engage, or not, to be slow to speak, or quick to listen, to share that meme on social media, or to take a moment to think about what it actually says. C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance.” The little decisions you and I make during these times of crucible, whether for good or evil, become the big decisions that define our cultural identity.