Spotlight: Dunkirk

Warning: minor spoilers for Dunkirk follow.

I’ve never been a big fan of war movies.  There’s only so many times I can be told that “war is hell” by watching a ragtag group of soldiers make their way through hell and back before it gets old.  This is why, despite the Oscar buzz around it, I’ve never been particularly interested in seeing “Hacksaw Ridge”.

Enter “Dunkirk”.  All of the pre-release hype surrounding the movie billed it as something totally different.

And you know what?  For once, the hype wasn’t wrong.

“Dunkirk” is about the event itself more than the people involved in it, which on its own is unique for the genre.  But the movie takes a non-linear approach as well.  The story is told from three different points of view: on land taking place over a week, on the sea taking place over a day, and in the air taking place over an hour.  This means that as we move through the movie, we see events happen from these different perspectives.  For example, at one point in the movie we watch as a couple of spitfire pilots take down a bomber that had just sunk a large warship.  From up in the air, we see people bailing out into the water, but because of our distance from it we don’t feel the full impact.  Then later, we see that same event but from the people down at sea level, which instantly makes the event far more harrowing than it was before.

This happens more than once throughout the movie.  The three points of view weave in and out of each other (for example, we see the three spitfire planes from the “air” perspective fly over the boat from the “sea” perspective).  My only gripe with this narrative style is that at first it can be a little disorienting.  The movie spells out for you at the beginning the time frames each perspective takes place over, but it still might take viewers a little bit of time before they understand what is meant by “one week”, “one day”, and “one hour”.  That, combined with the disjointed nature of the plot, might be a little off-putting to some.

I was also thrown off a little by the fact that the land segment was titled “the mole”.  I didn’t find out until after the movie, but “the mole” refers to the large concrete jetties they used to facilitate the evacuation of troops.  It’s a nice detail, but it seems inconsistent when the other segments are simply titled “the sea” and “the air”.

Despite these minor qualms though, the unique chronology of the film is what makes it so great.  It tightens the pacing, making sure that we’re never at ease or too far away from the action.  And this is underscored by the tense soundtrack, which features a low ticking noise that gets faster and louder the closer you get to something bad happening.

This non-linearity becomes an integral part of the film’s themes as well.  “Dunkirk”, at its core, is about the small victories in the face of a massive failure.  Historically, the battle of Dunkirk was a bitter and devastating defeat for the Allies.  They were forced to retreat all the way to the town of Dunkirk, where they were surrounded by the Germans and had to wait for rescue.  The movie captures the sense of hopelessness the event must have inspired in the Allied soldiers.  And the non-linear style of it allows us to see the struggles from land, sea, and air, which gives us a compelling overview of the entire event instead of focusing on a small group of people within the event itself.

The movie does give us key characters to observe all the happenings through, but in the end it is about the Dunkirk battle itself.  And even though we feel a sense of triumph by the end, it is tempered by the knowledge that this was a bitter defeat for the Allied forces.  The movie culminates with a reading of the famous “we shall fight on the beaches” speech by Winston Churchill, but the rousing words are at one point superimposed over a shot of empty infantry helmets lying on the beaches, reminding us of the toll Dunkirk took.

In many ways, “Dunkirk” succeeds.  It succeeds at being a non-linear narrative.  It succeeds at being a tense and thrilling movie.  It succeeds at giving us an in-depth look at a historical event that is likely not well-known in popular culture.

But most of all, it succeeds at reminding us that “war is hell” in its own unique way.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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Misplaced Priorities: The Failures of Our Education System

When I was in my tenth grade history class, I noticed something odd.  There was a span of about two weeks or so where we talked about World War Two.  We talked about D-Day, Hitler, Mussolini, and so on.  We went through the various battles, the two theaters of war (Europe and Pacific), and all the famous leaders of that time.  But then when it came time to talk about what came after, we spent literally a day talking about Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War.  One class period, and that was it.  It was then that I started to realize something was amiss with our education system.

And it wasn’t until I was older that I realized the problem was more complicated.

Many people of my age like to criticize our education system for perpetuating a narrow-minded, patriotic worldview.  They condemn it for focusing too much on the “good” parts of our history, and glossing over the bad.  While this is true in a lot of respects (as with my personal experience above), the problem doesn’t just lie there.  Our education system, I feel, isn’t doing a great job preparing students for the real world.

When I look back at what classes were required for us to take in high school, I notice some things.  I do feel that high school does a decent job at providing its students with a general knowledge base to work with, but there are some areas that could use some work.  For example, I remember taking a high finance class in my freshman year.  Basically we talked about things like budgeting, writing checks, managing a checking account, and so on.  For someone my age, it was really useful information and advice considering most of us will end up with a checking account because it is almost essential to function in our society.  But you know what?  I believe that the class was an elective, as in it wasn’t required course material. But really, how many kids are going to take a class called “High Finance”?

What it comes down to is that schools are very good at giving us theoretical knowledge (math formulas, reading comprehension, scientific processes), but they let us down when it comes to things of a more practical nature.  Math classes are fine and all, but after a certain point the knowledge becomes useless to all but a very particular group of people.  Same with science classes.  It might be interesting learning about the different scientific theories and laws, but chances are that unless you’re a science major in college most of this information is going to be fairly useless to you.

And going back to the subject of history, the way we focus our lens of history in high school is really questionable.  While its true that we can’t cover all of history with the same attention to detail, we could spend a little less time talking about things like World War Two (WWII).  We all know that D-Day happened, and we all know that the Holocaust was a horrific event that should never be forgotten.  These are important subjects that deserve covering, but there are other aspects of history that have so much richness to them that we just gloss over.

For starters, there’s World War One (WWI), otherwise known as “the war to end all wars”.  I was aware of the existence of WWI, but I never really understand just how earth-shattering it was until my British Literature class in college.  The advent of WWI drastically changed the way humans saw the world.  It heralded a massive shift in arts and literature.  No longer was war a courageous and noble thing.  War became ugly and decrepit.  War became a nightmare.  War became the bane of humanity.  In short, war sucks.

But I had to wait until college to learn about this.  I barely remembered how we talked about WWI in class, because my memories are overshadowed by the over-saturation of WWII lectures.  All I really remember was that WWI was mentioned, and that it started with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria.  It may have been mentioned how brutal it was, but the details were skimmed over in favor of moving on to WWII.  And it is there that the critics of my generation are right.  The schools do have a tendency to focus more on parts of history that make the United States look favorable.

And even in eras of history where we did horrible things, history classes tend to gloss over them.  We talk a lot about the Revolutionary War, but we barely talk about how we treated people who were called “loyalists”, people who favored the cause of the British in the colonies.  People like that had their businesses destroyed, their livelihoods ruined.  Some were tarred and feathered, then paraded around and made an example out of.  The worst part?  Tarring and feathering was literally what it sounds like, with hot tar being poured on a person’s body then being rolled around in a pool of feathers which would stick to them.  The aftermath was that if a victim tried to remove the tar, a portion of their skin came off with it.  Not only that, but their skin would blister and burn, and they were often left susceptible to infection.  I never heard that part in school, and I’m betting most of you reading this didn’t either.

That’s the problem.  Our education system has such a narrow focus on subject matter that once we get out of high school, we realize that a lot of the information we possess isn’t inherently necessary to function in our modern society.  Not only that, but we’re constantly pushed by educators to figure out what we want to do with our lives before we’re even finished with high school.  We’re told that it’s important to find the college you want to go to now, and that waiting is bad.  You know what?  I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life or what my major was going to be until the second year of my five-year stint in college.

Waiting isn’t a bad thing.  With something like this, its best to take your time and think on it, rather than jumping in headfirst.  As the old cliché goes, think before you leap.

This is where our education system needs to change.  High school students need more practical knowledge rather than theoretical.  They need to be exposed to views besides “America is great and amazing”.  There are still plenty of problems in our society even today that could be addressed but aren’t.  Progress doesn’t mean ignoring our past sins.  Progress means accepting our mistakes, acknowledging and owning them.  This is where our education system can change, by providing us not only with practical knowledge but with the knowledge of our faults.  We are not perfect.  No one is.  Accepting that is an integral part of life.  Illusions weigh us down, but the truth sets us free.  History may be written by the victors, but that doesn’t mean it has to be skewed.

And that’s all for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for a new post as always.  Until then, have a great week everyone.