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'Dunkirk' Is an Allegory of Resilience for Our Age

Charles Howarth
Fionn Whitehead as Tommy (© 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., IMDB)

Christopher Nolan’s film is not primarily a patriotic tale of superior character, but rather a celebration simply of the universal ability to endure.


Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2017
US date: 2017-07-21
UK date: 2017-07-21
Neoliberalism individualizes experiences, rendering obsolete collective visions of the future, and putting the responsibility for problems squarely on the individual’s shoulders.
“All we did was survive”, a broken soldier murmurs at the end of Dunkirk. “That’s enough”, comes the reply.

This is the message of Christopher Nolan’s mesmerizing film about the Allied retreat from France in 1940. In Britain, the “miracle of Dunkirk” is part of the national mythology. Whilst it was the final act of a humiliating defeat, it has come to symbolize British steadfastness against desperate odds. Yet Nolan’s film is not primarily a patriotic tale of superior character, but rather a celebration simply of the universal ability to endure.

In this, Nolan departs not just from celebrations of “the Dunkirk Spirit” found within British culture, but also the conventions of the blockbuster war film. In films like Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) and Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson), virtuous and courageous heroes triumph over a fiendish foe. In contrast, Dunkirk is not a film about heroes. Certainly, it depicts heroic acts. However, it also depicts much selfishness, whilst any heroic triumph is denied by the reality of military humiliation -- a fact the film does not shy away from.

The hero ultimately has the power to change the world; on the other hand, the protagonists of Dunkirk are defined by their powerlessness. The battle has already been lost, and thus all they can hope for is to secure their own fate through surviving the enemy’s bombardment.

In Nolan’s film, with powerlessness denying heroism, virtue is instead to be found in resilience. Resilience is the capacity to adapt and to thrive in the face of challenge. Dunkirk’s protagonists are resilient as they remain steadfast in the face of mortal danger, adapt to constantly changing circumstances, and display the sheer will to survive.

This emphasis on resilience has powerful resonances within contemporary culture. Today, the most prized quality of the self is resilience. This is the argument of Angela Duckworth’s best-selling Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance ( Scribner, May 2016). Duckworth suggests that success is best predicted not by IQ but by resilience, or “grit”.

Numerous writers have outlined ways to build resilience. Duckworth sees it as developing interest, practice, purpose, and hope. In Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy (Knopf, April 2017), Sheryl Sandberg argues that resilience is best built through love and through embracing the collective. Meanwhile, game designer Jane McGonigal suggests that inner strength can be found in unlikely places, like video games.

Resilience is a central focus in the well-being movement. Mindfulness emphasizes building resilience through emotional regulation and “being present”, whilst apps like Headspace claim to reduce stress and improve focus.

It is also central to fitness culture. With its slogans like “Don’t think about how something could be easier. Think about how you can be tougher”, fitness events like Tough Mudder are a celebration of the willpower to triumph over adversity. In 2015, the clothing line Under Armour ran a campaign with the strapline, “I will what I want”, and has created a website for consumers to make “I will” declarations.

Indeed, demands for resilience are shaping health and nutrition culture. It's no coincidence that protein, touted as “the nutrient of the decade”, is the ultimate nutrient for resilience, offering muscle growth, improved recovery, long-term health and focus. Brands specifically position themselves as resilience builders. For example, supermeal brand Ambronite’s strapline is “Thrive. Don’t just survive.”

The concept of resilience is, however, nothing new. Historically, it has shaped the national character of many (particularly Protestant) countries. In the United States, it is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “self-reliance”; in Britain, it is “the stiff upper lip”; and in Finland, it is “sisu”.

Yet its re-emergence says something about the character of our age. All the exhortations to build inner strength reflect the fact that life today is tough: we live with constant anxiety and the possibility that shocks will throw us off course. No more is this apparent than in Melissa Broder’s angst-ridden tweets and poems, which, as Elle magazine notes, express a desire not to shock, “but to survive”.

The tribulations of the modern individual are partly a product of the neoliberalism that shapes Western societies. Neoliberalism is a culture of privatization and deregulation. Its fundamental drive is to remove the various safety nets of the past -- the welfare state, job security, protectionism etc. The justification here is that such safety nets create docile and mollycoddled citizens, whilst working against market efficiency.

The result is that the individual becomes far more exposed to risks and uncertainty. The economist Guy Standing has coined the term “the precariat” to describe the new and sizeable class of worker who must live with constant threats of redundancies, outsourcing, and the uncertainties of the Gig economy. Millennials, in particular, have it tough: they face the reality that, unlike previous generations, hard work may not be rewarded with affluence and security in later life, whilst symbols of the good life like home ownership become increasingly out of reach.

In such circumstances of uncertainty, we must develop personal capacities to cope. We are encouraged to become resilient not just to survive, but to grow. As the philosophers Brad Evans and Julian Reid suggest in Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously (Polity, March 2014), neoliberalism fosters the belief that “the best way to deal with endangerment is to internalize its very occurrence within the vital networks for existence. Only then do we become more than our current selves”.

A historical film set during WWII, Dunkirk is, of course, set in a very different time, and in a situation far more extreme than most of us are likely to ever face. Nevertheless, it captures brilliantly these themes of an uncertain and unjust world, and individuals charged with surviving it. The narrative oscillates between a generalized anxiety and sudden, devastating shocks (when the Nazis attack). The protagonists demonstrate a relentless resolve during periods of anxiety, and savviness and clarity of thought during the shocks.

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy

It's interesting that the film almost entirely eschews context. We join the action only as the evacuation is underway, missing the defeat that precipitated it. The words of Winston Churchill are only heard at the end, and even then they are not spoken by him but read by one of the protagonists. The Nazis remain largely invisible: we never see their faces. Instead, Nolan chooses to focus on subjective experience, plunging the audience straight into the desperate maelstrom experienced by the characters.

This experience of disorientation again mirrors our experience under neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has destroyed the firm structures of old, instead promoting fluidity and dynamism. Resilience involves disavowing security and embracing this fluidity. The facelessness of the enemy in Dunkirk is also mirrored in contemporary experience: many of the threats we face today, like global warming or the possibility of another financial meltdown, are similarly faceless, originating from abstract processes described by scientists or economists.

Furthermore, the ultimate powerlessness of Dunkirk’s protagonists to change their collective fate mirrors today’s pessimism. A sense of powerlessness is reflected in the decision of many people in the United States and United Kingdom to vote for Donald Trump and Brexit; there is increasing national pessimism as seen in debates on climate change, economic futures, and terrorism.

Evans and Reid write in Resilient Life that a “notable casualty” of neoliberalism “is the utopian ideal”. Neoliberalism individualizes experiences, rendering obsolete collective visions of the future, and putting the responsibility for problems squarely on the individual’s shoulders. Within such a culture, we lack the frameworks to instigate collective change; all we can do, ultimately, is change ourselves.

Nolan has created a compelling, albeit disturbing allegory of contemporary experience. Today, all that many of us can do is to survive, and whether or not that is enough, it may be the best that can be hoped for.

Charles Howarth is a cultural analyst by vocation: he serves as Head of Semiotics at Gemic, a leading cultural strategy and innovation agency, with offices in New York and Helsinki. He studied a PhD at the University of London on smartphones and the self. He is recently published in Salon.

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