One of the cardinal errors of conservative political discourse is the recruitment of pop culture icons as what Marxists like to call “culture capital” for the conservative cause. It is not uncommon to see attempts by conservatives to make a photogenic, well-toned modestly smiling member of the glitterati into one of “our guys” (or gals) whenever he or she makes a slightly conservative-sounding statement. Certainly, figures like Clint Eastwood, James Woods, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Joan Rivers, and, of course, Chuck “all my rowdy friends” Norris have all been vocal about their conservative political views and certainly could be labeled men and women of the right.
But what fundamentally makes someone a conservative is not necessarily adherence to a political party, and, in fact, there are many in both Tinsel Town and the music industry who have a deeply conservative philosophical vision but who, at the same time, would vociferously pronounce their liberal bona fides and brandish several hefty checks written to the DNC or one of the many Clinton campaigns as evidence that they never ever would be associated with nasty troglodytes that lumber about the political right.
While we might tally lists of conservative values or talking points, there is something deeper and richer about a conservative vision than being simply “pro-” or “anti-” something. As the indomitable (and richly British-accented) Roger Scruton once said on the BBC (of all places), “conservatism is about conserving things — not everything, of course — but the good things that we admire and cherish and which, if we don’t look after them, we might lose.” Such a witty and succinct definition is simultaneously broad enough to encompass a number of different ideas, movements, and cultural phenomena, but pointed enough that everyone knows basically what Scruton means.
If there is an American filmmaker who fits Scruton’s definition of a conservative as a custodian of culture and protector of the values of our civilization while simultaneously being known as a master craftsman in his field, it is Christopher Nolan.
There are many living filmmakers (yes, even other Americans) who are better or more popular directors than Christopher Nolan, but Nolan is unquestionably one of the few directors to be able to capture the attention of the everyday Joe and Jill movie-goer while weaving a strong and multilayered philosophical vision throughout his films.
Surprisingly and with many caveats, Nolan’s vision is both definitively conservative and proudly American.
In fact, even left-wing critics have admitted that Nolan’s films — especially the Dark Knight, Batman trilogy — have markedly (and even frighteningly) conservative themes.
Nolan’s most recent work, which was released on DVD this winter and has just finished running the awards season gambit this spring, oddly drew more conservative critique than liberal.
When first released, the UK Spectator’s Deborah Ross worried about the film’s lack of empathy for the everyday World War II soldier that was rightly relished in the deeply personal story of the American GI in Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Even more explicitly and with palpable disappointment, National Review’s Kyle Smith wished that Nolan would “have swapped some of the film’s Kubrickian technical mastery for a bit more of Spielberg’s heart.”
The frustration of conservative critics with Nolan’s work is certainly understandable. Similar to the letdown of Nolan’s 2012 The Dark Knight Rises, the fast-paced and smartly edited first trailer promised an action packed, World War II flick with Tom Hardy at the helm of a Spitfire and lots of stiff upper lip Kenneth Branagh dialogue.
However, what critics have largely missed in Dunkirk — especially that we can now digest it as part of Nolan’s wider oeuvre and without the nervous turbulence of its immediate release — is a fundamentally conservative philosophical vision.
In fact, it might be argued that Dunkirk is not about World War II at all.
As Americans we are used to World War II films (usually watched with the whole family — or at least dad and grandpa) that, like Homer’s muse, tell us again the tale of America’s great triumph over the Third Reich. The very good Spielberg works, Schindler’s List, Band of Brothers, and of course, Saving Private Ryan, are pictures about World War II. 1970’s Patton, directed by Frances Schaffner and written by Francis Ford Coppola but dominated by the excellent acting of George C. Scott, may be indirectly about Vietnam and the American military tradition, but it, obviously, was primarily about the Second World War.
Dunkirk, however, like all of Nolan’s films, while maintaining a strong patriotism, plunges below the surface into the murky waters of philosophy, probing some of the deepest human struggles in our unfortunately postmodern age.
Nolan’s work, as critics of all political stripes admit, is bleak. Primarily set on a rainy and cruel beach decorated with military debris and the bodies of slain soldiers, the ambience of most of the film echoes the feeling of absurdist playwrights like Samuel Beckett and the bleak, existential novels of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. In a scene that could very well have been inspired by Beckett’s nihilistic Waiting for Godot, a small party of British civilians pick up a crazed and nameless soldier (played by Cillian Murphy) from the stern of a partially sunken ship.
The nameless soldier initially appears violent and selfish — like the featured trio of soldiers on the shore, Alex, Tommy, and Gibson, who sneak onto boats by pretending to help fallen mates. Yet, as the movie progresses, the audience cannot but help sympathize with Murphy’s character and even the self-seeking and hot tempered Alex, played by Harry Styles of boyband One Direction fame.
This complexity of character is characteristic of Nolan who famously gave us the seductive Joker and alluring Bane as well as an angry, and at times, reckless and cruel Batman of the Dark Knight trilogy. Almost like the Church Father, St. Augustine, Christopher Nolan has a profound awareness of the tortured nature of the human heart in which both a heroism and villainy often are intertwined.
As a result, Dunkirk, like all of Nolan’s films, is about agony and struggle in the deepest sense. The characters in Dunkirk struggle against the elemental powers that terrorizes them on land sea and air — in fact, the Germans, who are never mentioned by name in the film, appear more as terrible and haunting and forces than as human enemies — we do catch a glimpse of some Wehrmacht soldiers roughly carting away a grounded RAF superbly and stoically played by Tom Hardy, at the film’s haunting denouement.
However, the glue that holds together the characters in the film is not only the personal will to live but the bounds of family and the paternal resolution of figures like Mr. Dawson, a calm and warmly accented British father who, along with his son and young family friend, navigates his small craft through shipwrecks and oil spills to rescue his stranded British compatriots.
When Mr. Dawson’s craft finally arrives on the shores of France with a fleet of St. George Cross and Union Jack adorned fishing and pleasure craft, one cannot help shed patriotic and relieved tears with Kenneth Branagh’s proudly British naval officer.
The now fabled last four minutes of the film are Nolan at his best in which, for the first time, he accomplishes a truly epic celebration of communal solidarity and triumph. The recently rescued Alex and Tommy are trekking inward to rural, Tolkien-green England on a train as Tommy reads Winston Churchill’s soul-stirring “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech from a freshly printed newspaper. Alex drinks beer and reluctantly received plaudits from Brits standing near the slow moving train. Tom Hardy’s Spitfire, after he tensely struggled with the landing gear, is downed and engulfed in flames to prevent it from capture. However, the sense of achievement and relief is almost overpowering (if the whole movie was of this scene’s caliber, it would have been a masterpiece) and the power of Churchill’s words are only accented by the images of retreat and seeming failure.
It is also the first time in the movie in which Nolan’s visuals sync perfectly and beautifully with Hans Zimmer’s score. The murky grey tint of the film has lifted and while, as in the Dark Knight series and Interstellar, the struggle must go on, the characters in the film, and the audience reach what the French call moments privilèges or little glimpses of joy amidst the harsh rhythm of everyday life as they finally come to the quiet but temporary piece of home.
Dunkirk is, at its heart, a meditation on the power of perseverance and the will to live in the face of despair, failure, and elemental forces of violence and terror that plague the human experience. It is also a film about family and the triumph of patriotism and the dedicated collaboration of people working together to overcome evil.
It is, fundamentally, a film about conserving the best of Britain, America, and the West, and it is a film that deserves a second look.