Dunkirk is a frantic movie. The music, the pacing, and the movie’s narrative jumps keep viewers tensely wrestling with the chaos of war. It tells an epic story of heroism in the face of defeat, of making noble decisions… and also of making regrettable decisions. Viewers are challenged to consider what they might do in similar circumstances, and how they might live with themselves afterwards. Several of the film’s protagonists end the film facing a difficult question: can I forgive myself, even after I’ve been forgiven by others?
Dunkirk recounts the retreat of Allied forces from the beaches of France during the early stages of World War II. Nearly 400,000 troops were facing annihilation at the hands of the Nazis. While the British government hoped to be able to send enough transports to get 30,000 soldiers to safety, the response of civilian boaters showing up to help ferry troops across the English Channel enabled over 300,000 soldiers to retreat.
Christopher Nolan (well-known for directing the most recent Batman trilogy) tells the story from three points of view: the beach, the sea, and the air. Each story line moves at its own pacing, but with occasional intersections with the other story lines. Through these stories we meet a group of soldiers engaged in desperate self-preservation. We meet a noble boat crew driven by compassion to put themselves at risk. We meet two pilots willing to put their lives on the line for strangers. It’s curious, however, that we never meet the enemy nor the soldier’s families back home. The conflict at hand is a contained, internal conflict: what am I willing to do to save myself or to save others?
When soldiers are faced with that question in frantic circumstances demanding immediate responses, some make regrettable decisions. They make hasty decisions about the value of human life. Some make some decisions they are ashamed of.
One soldier (played by Cillian Murphy) is faced with the consequences of his decision at the end of the film. When he realizes the affect his actions had, he hides in shame. He literally disappears from the film. The audience is left to wonder: how will the soldier deal with this turn of events? How will he deal with his guilt and regret? How will he overcome it?
Who amongst us has not made hasty decisions we lived to regret? Even after others we’ve harmed have forgiven us, we still carry a sense of self-resentment or mistrust. There are times when the hardest person to forgive can be ourselves.
There is a lot of compassion and forgiveness expressed in Dunkirk. The civilian flotilla that responds to the stranded soldiers is one such expression. The reaction of English civilians to their defeated soldiers is another—for while many soldiers are ashamed that they had to retreat, the citizens celebrate their homecoming. There’s compassion in the selflessness of some of the combatants. These expressions of compassion and forgiveness are examples of grace.
There’s grace for those of us struggling with forgiveness, as well. Christians believe that God was at work in forgiveness before we even recognize our need to be forgiven. Forgiveness and God’s steadfast love are oft-repeated themes in scripture. And we witness this grace in the people in our lives who see our regretful decisions and yet still love us. There’s grace in those who, like the citizens of England in Dunkirk, recognize our regrettable actions and still see something of value within us.
We don’t know what happened to Cillian Murhpy’s character in his life after the film. We’re left hoping for him. We hope that he does not resign himself to be defined by his regrettable actions. We’re rooting for him. We’re hopeful.
Watching Dunkirk is exhausting. But it is also a hopeful adventure. It is hopeful because we know the rest of the story. We know that these soldiers rise again. And maybe that offers us a clue on how we offer forgiveness to ourselves. Though our past mistakes may leave us exhausted, may we still identify the hope we have for tomorrow. In grasping that hope for tomorrow, may we let go of our self-resentment from yesterday.
Ryan Dunn is the author. Ryan serves as the Minister of Online Engagement for Rethink Church.