Men, Women and ‘Dunkirk’: On the Empathetic Masculinity of Christopher Nolan
Directing is a very masculine occupation, or at least it is perceived as such. With the vast majority of working directors being male (as well as white), and the hype around the position viewed in such male terms, it’s hard to overlook how this effects the ways we talk about film. The expectations of the field and the art produced tend to be framed through this surprisingly narrow lens, simply because it’s what we’re used to, and so a default mode is set. Even the way films are made are positioned as such. As noted by Alec Baldwin in Maureen Dowd’s New York Times article on the lack of women directors in Hollywood:
‘… the ”clichéd paramilitary nature” of directing runs deep. ”They call it shooting,” he says. ”Its groupings are called units. They communicate on walkie-talkies. The director is the general. There is still the presumption that men are better designed for the ferocity and meanness that the job often requires.”’
This quote has been in my mind a lot since seeing Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, not so much because of the film itself, which is masterful in its execution, but in the way many critics seem to have trouble contextualising it. Talking about Christopher Nolan will inevitably open a lot of windows and unleash more than originally intended. To discuss anything by Nolan is to engage with the ferocity of his ardent fanbase; it is to fall into debates about the legitimacy of the blockbuster genre in more prestige-friendly terms; it is to interrogate the concept of hype and the role of critics in cultural discourse; and it is to talk about the depiction of women on screen. Good criticism will widen the conversation on any topic, but as with anything of these stratospheric levels of popularity, there’s something about Nolan that gets everyone talking about something.
Dunkirk was always going to be the hot button movie of the Summer in that regard. How could it not be? Having said that, even I was surprised by some of the hot takes it created, particularly with a recent piece by Mehera Bonner on Marie Claire’s website. Directly responding to any article can be a minefield, but this one felt necessary for a number of reasons I will elaborate on. The article is a curious piece that doesn’t have much to say about the movie itself, although the writer does express admiration for its technical aspects. The strange assertion they come to is that ‘my main issue with Dunkirk is that it’s so clearly designed for men to man-out over… the packaging of the film, the general vibe, and the tenor of the people applauding it just screams “men-only”—and specifically seems to cater to a certain type of very pretentious man who would love nothing more than to explain to me why I’m wrong about not liking it.’
I can relate to dealing with men who can’t wait to explain why I’m wrong about my opinions, and many of us have stories to tell about exhausting encounters with some of Nolan’s more angry fans. That can all be true and still have nothing to do with the film itself. The main problem here is the declaration that Dunkirk is a movie to bro out over, or as the author elaborates, ‘an excuse for men to celebrate maleness.’
There’s a lot going on in Dunkirk, a storytelling feat all the more impressive given how little dialogue there is in it for a film just over 100 minutes in length. It’s a film of tension, trauma, fear and desperation. It is a movie with an exclusively male main cast, but it is not a movie that glories in masculinity.
Nolan isn’t great at exposition or writing female characters, something I think he’s aware of. In many ways, Dunkirk feels like the director sat down and noted everything he was good at, everything he was bad at, then made sure his script was devoid of the latter. He’s often been accused of lacking emotion in his work, but Dunkirk is easily his most empathetic piece, and that empathy is rooted in a refusal to judge desperate men. This is a film where we spend a significant amount of time with broken, terrified and panicking men, each in a frenzy to make an escape from the beaches of Dunkirk, regardless of its legality. Two young men - half the cast don’t look old enough to be at war, which offers a terrifying reminder of lost youth - scour the piles of dead soldiers looking for a wounded one who can provide them safe passage to an escaping ship under the guise of charity. Later on, a group of soldiers hide in a stranded ship, waiting for the tide, and quickly turn on one of them when trouble arrives. A shell-shocked soldier found at sea scrambles to get away from the action, practically begging for the ship to turn around, then fighting for survival with tragic consequences (this character doesn’t even get a name; he is simply credited as ‘Shivering Soldier’, stripped of an identity by this war).
What makes these men all the more striking in this context is how Nolan does not condemn them. War films are chock full of the stock wimp character, the whining coward who refuses to do his duty and tries to escape or is killed in the process. It’s more often than not framed as a good thing that this weight around the real heroes’ neck has been lifted, and that ‘real men’ would never flee from such moments. War is terrifying, frequently futile, and it forces men into a stoic lie, one where they can never be sad or scared or selfish. Sometimes, it’s enough to survive, and Nolan knows that. He even has a character say that to one of the returning soldiers who fear they will be jeered out of town.
Nolan is not great at female characters, and mercifully Dunkirk does not include them in the main ensemble. There are women on screen, working as nurses and arriving on the beaches with evacuation ships, as they did in history, but their involvement is minimal and all the better for it. In terms of directors sticking in their lanes, Nolan knows what to do. This film easily could have had a subplot with a weeping wife back home in Blighty, waiting for her husband to come home, and it didn’t. there are great stories of women’s involvement in the war effort waiting to be told, which the author of the Marie Claire piece notes, but do we really want Nolan doing that? We already have incredible women directors who could do the job. Lone Scherfig already did it this year with Their Finest, and there are many waiting in the side-lines for the opportunity. They could use it more than Nolan.
The crowning moment of Dunkirk, amidst is technical dazzle and emotional storytelling, is the final scene of the film (spoilers ahead). After two of the young men get off the beaches and back to the UK, they sit on a train wondering how much the people of Britain will hate them for their perceived cowardice. What they receive is a hero’s welcome, punctuated by one of the young men reading a newspaper with an article on Winston Churchill’s now famous speech in the House of Commons after the evacuation. Everyone knows this speech and it’s been lauded as one of the greats, but in that moment, as that petrified soldier reads his words of optimism, declaring that ‘we shall never surrender’, there is no hope.
The film ends on that one young soldier’s face, with the dawning realisation that this isn’t over for him. He will have to go back to war. He will be forced to return to the front-lines, and he very well may never come home again. Nolan builds to that moment where the audience expects triumph, and he delivers a sharp blow of reality. There is no glory in maleness in that moment, or any other in the film, because to be a man in this time is to be utterly expendable in the name of duty. Churchill offers victory; Nolan cuts back to the cost. That may be his greatest act of empathy.