In the days after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, I remember seeing the boats. Boats off all kinds. Civilian boats. Dozens of them. Rushing into the smoke and panic in lower Manhattan. They courageously pushed into the danger, to help their fellow Americans. They didn’t know if another attack was coming. They didn’t know if more planes were coming. They didn’t know if they’d die. They just knew people needed help — people who needed to escape what had instantly and shockingly become a war zone in Lower Manhattan. The scope of it all was mammoth. Beyond anything the world had ever seen. It was too big to capture on a TV screen. So was the breadth of the bravery.
It was a kind of unity and selflessness I’d never seen in my life. And in the 16 years since 9/11, we haven’t seen since. It reminded me of a quote I remember was posted in a classroom of my high school: “No one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do little.” On 9/11, so many did whatever little they could do to help. Beneath the fire and carnage of 9/11 that most saw on TV, that’s what I will always remember about that time I was there as a first responder in the National Guard.
I wrote about it at length in my book, because it was often overlooked — and now — mostly forgotten. The civilian reaction on 9/11 in New York, at the Pentagon, and in the planes above, was a magnificent display of unity and cohesion across race, social, economic, and political lines that seems unimaginable in today’s nasty, divided times where too many Americans fill our days with cable news shouting matches, Facebook political attacks, and Twitter wars.
9/11 was the best of the true spirit of America. Our Pearl Harbor. Ordinary people — welders, doctors, firefighters, fast food workers — all chipping in to hand out water, help the traumatized, and dig for the dead. Ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things in the face of unprecedented circumstances. That’s also what happened in 1940 in Dunkirk — and why the groundbreaking, eardrum-pressing film by Christopher Nolan that bears the same name is so important — especially right now. At Dunkirk, thousands of courageous civilians, stood together, with hundreds of thousands of troops, to sacrifice their own future to change a history they might not live to see. They were all united by the connective tissue of crisis, to create a combined shield of resilience that would ultimately save the western world from tyranny. It’s a huge thing. That’s what war often is: a massively, unexplainably enormous magnitude of emotion and life that is almost impossible to process — much less recreate.
When I stood on the pile at Ground Zero, my heart was crushed downward by the sheer size of it all. It was too big an experience to properly explain — you just had to be there to understand. That’s the challenge of any ambitious war movie, and that’s the challenge that “Dunkirk” has improbably met — and exceeded — in the way only a modern-day, Imax-fueled, Hans Zimmer-scored, Christopher Nolan-directed film could. “Dunkirk” is not a film, it’s an immersion. The confusion, the noise, the size — the indescribable size — Dunkirk masterfully pulls it off. I never served in World War II, but as a combat veteran of Iraq, I know a filmmaker gets the raw experience of war close to right when I have to give my fellow veterans with mental health injuries a warning about the possible triggers it contains.
“Dunkirk” is overwhelming, swirling, consuming. Maybe most of all: intense. Blasts made me jump awkwardly, like I was sitting in a horror movie, jerking side to side in my chair to see if the other people in the theater saw how much it actually just scared the s— out of me. The deep, swarming, disorientating cinematography is the hull, and the pounding, relentless, appropriately-too-loud soundscape is the engine, that the acting and the story drive like a crew running a well-oiled, modern aircraft carrier of an experience. Although centered around the English war experience, the important distance will feel short for most Americans. Their fight was ours to come. And like a great soccer match, the pain and thrill is universal. In a way the English know all too well, you’ll be stressed and holding your breath, painfully alternating from wincing to cheering, from the first minute, until the very last. From the moment the lights go down, the driving tension begins. And it doesn’t stop crashing into your chest until the credits roll, leaving you rattled and exhausted. But more alive. And in an importantly visceral way, just like combat.
For that alone, “Dunkirk” is a masterful salvo of a film that will forever contribute to the public understanding of war: a theatrical gut check for all times.
And in these times when such a small percentage of Americans are experiencing our post-9/11 war being waged worldwide, and as our president flippantly calls and orders for more of it, our nation needs this film now more than ever.
Paul Rieckhoff is CEO and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), an Iraq veteran, and the author of “Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective.”