No historical film can capture the total complexity of an actual event. And so, expectedly, some professional historians have found fault with Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s World War II drama, which has been nominated for Best Picture. But to focus on the specific truths that get lost due to artistic license is to miss the more profound truths Dunkirk has to offer, including what it reveals about a Christian understanding of time.
In one sense, Dunkirk is a simple story: British soldiers are stranded on the shores of France, and a fleet of civilian boats crosses the English Channel to come to their rescue. The structure of the film, however, is more complicated. Dunkirk follows three main story arcs, each featuring different protagonists: two soldiers stranded on the beach; a father sailing to reach Dunkirk alongside his son and their young neighbor; two pilots providing air support. Nolan reveals his structure in titles that appear at the beginning of the film, identifying the locations for each segment and the time that will pass at each one: “The Mole (pier), 1 week,” “The sea, 1 day,” “The air, 1 hour.” The remainder of the film proceeds to tell each story linearly, even as it cuts among the three narrative strands. Miraculously, all three segments and timelines coalesce in the film’s finale.
Through the first half, this structure gives Dunkirk a divided feel. There seems to be little connection between the men on the beach and the citizen crew on the boat. And the concern the pilots have over their dwindling fuel does not seem relevant to the soldiers or the men at sea. By the conclusion of the film, however, the audience understands how everything intersects. (Spoilers ahead.) Those soldiers end up being rescued by the boat, which also manages to save one of the pilots after he’s forced to ditch his plane in the water. Time has passed very differently for all of the characters involved, yet they’re ultimately woven together to serve Nolan’s predetermined purpose.
Life often feels coincidental. Fender benders, illnesses, bonuses, job offers, and even death can seemingly come out of nowhere. We sometimes feel like those soldiers on the beach. Have we been abandoned? Wrecked without rhyme or reason? Dunkirk illustrates that there can be a higher reality at work, in its own good time. As writer and director, Nolan knew where this story was headed, and how each seemingly disparate piece contributed to the whole. When we witness one of the soldiers stealing from a corpse early on, we don’t yet know that it will lead to a redemptive moment later. Watching Dunkirk for the first time, it’s impossible for audiences—even those who know their history well—to fully comprehend how all of these varying pieces will fit.
The timelines are woven together to serve a predetermined purpose.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe C.S. Lewis described Aslan as “not like a tame lion,” meaning that God is not bound by our expectations. Even so, Scripture is filled with people who expected God to operate on their timing. Abraham’s story involved God’s promise that Abram would be the father of many nations, yet his life is spent longing for even one son. Samuel anointed David king of Israel, but it would be some 20 years before he ruled. Simeon and Anna both spent their lives longing to see the Messiah, and finally died happy that their “eyes have seen your salvation.”
When we focus on the specific events and moments before us, they seem to lack meaning. It appears that God is absent, because he is not moving now. The Bible upholds a different picture. To the Lord, “a thousand years are like a day.” God views all time as building towards his purposes. From a merely human perspective, the Messiah took forever to arrive. From the divine perspective, Immanuel arrived at the fullness of time. After millennia of preparation through prophecy, in the heart of the Pax Romana, God arrived. Suddenly, hindsight reveals the bringing together of different story arcs: the work of God amongst the people of Israel; the function of the law to reveal the extent of sin’s corruption; the cultivation of a people from whom the gospel would spread to the ends of the earth; the development of infrastructure allowing for that spread. God was at work in each moment, bringing about his will.
Dunkirk operates with a similar fullness of time. If we focus on the view from only the soldiers’ perspectives, despair reigns. When we take the larger view at the end of the film, suddenly we understand what the different pieces mean and how they draw together. When we focus on the individual elements of our lives, the world feels chaotic, hopeless, and cruel. From a biblical vantage point, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Dunkirk reminds us that God’s timing is not our timing and that his ways are not our ways. To quote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’s Mr. Beaver, he is not a tame or safe lion, “but he’s good.”