From The Dark Knight to Dunkirk

From The Dark Knight trilogy to Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan is trying to tell us how to define a true hero. In Batman Begins, one key point of Bruce Wayne’s desire to become Batman is so that he can be a symbol of something. A beacon of hope so that people can aspire to be a better one. This is a thread that continues through all three films, particularly The Dark Knight Rises, where Batman is honored as the savior of the city, not Bruce Wayne or any one person.

Pointedly, Wayne says at the end of the film, “A hero can be anyone.” Indeed, one of the major themes of The Dark Knight Rises is the consequences of the mistake made in The Dark Knight. By holding up Harvey Dent, in particular, as a bright role model, Batman and Gordon were forced to cover up his crimes committed as Two-Face. That cover-up led to some of the bad things that happened in the third film.

“A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.” — The Dark Knight Rises

Usually, World War II movies (and historical war movies in general) tend to narrow their spotlight to one man, one hero maybe a few, and that often works; we’re made to care about a soldier because of where he came from, what he left at home, and who he is. We’re meant to sympathize with him and thus want him to live. And if he’s a hero, then the film’s drama and tension — and, usually, inspirational triumph — come from watching this person whom we’ve come to care about succeed. In short, we’re expected to care about this person because they’ve become, however temporarily, a sort of friend(character, self).

In Dunkirk, the closest that Dunkirk comes to this mode of storytelling is in the fishing boat sections, where three men who aren’t part of the military don’t have to be asked twice to head off and do their duty. But even then, we get scant information about them — enough to make us care about their fates, but not much more. The true hero is one who conquers his own anger and hatred .The true hero is that nobody remembers what they meant to do. We only remember what they do.