Dunkirk: Leadership When the Heat Is On and You Just Want to Get Home

DUNKIRK, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, contains a gut-wrenching story told by a director and team who are all at the top of their game!

Unlike practically anything you’ve seen before, instead of focusing on a character whose back story develops throughout the movie, it zeroes in on a single event that plays out in three storylines — land, sea and air.

The “land” storyline takes place over one week. The “sea” storyline takes place over the course of one day. And, the “air” storyline takes place in the span of a single hour. It’s one story told from three different perspectives. The “one hour” for the guys in the air takes place within the above referenced “day” for the people “at sea,” and both of these are part of an incredibly long week for those stranded on “land.”

Dialogue in the movie is sparse. It’s not really necessary. The faces of the actors, the breathtaking cinematography and the heart-pounding soundtrack all come together masterfully to tell the story. From the opening shot and note, to the closing credits, your attention is arrested.

The score by Hans Zimmer, frequent Nolan collaborator, is my favorite soundtrack of the year. Parts of it reminded me of Zimmer’s work in The Dark Knight.

The acting is brilliant. The opening scene of the movie focuses on four British solders all running for their lives. Three are gunned down. The only one that escapes to momentary safety is Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead. We’ll experience most of the “land” storyline through this young man’s eyes.

I love that Nolan used several unknown actors in very important roles. It somehow humanizes the “ordinary men and women” who actually live these horrific events.

The sound is pounding and unrelenting. If you can see the movie in IMAX, by all means do so. It’s worth the extra cash. The sights and sounds will blow you away. You’ll actually feel the blasts of the bombs and force of the guns.

After taking a few days to consider it, I believe this movie is in the rare air of being a “masterpiece.” It’s that good and warrants repeated viewings.

The movie is about the quest of 400,000 soldiers to get home. “Home” is only 30 or so nautical miles away, but it might as well be light years when you’ve got an enemy as relentless as Adolph Hitler’s Germany closing in from seemingly all sides.

Moments like these can define an individual, and they certainly define leaders. The movie inspired a number of thoughts and feelings in me. Inevitably, I kept coming back to its implications regarding leadership.

Here are twelve leadership lessons I took away from Dunkirk.

Leadership Lessons from Dunkirk:

1. LEADERS GO FIRST AND LEAVE LAST.  

Kenneth Branagh plays Commander Bolton, leader of the Allied forces in Dunkirk. Branagh has been one of my favorite actors since his work in movies like Henry V and Dead Again. He brings the kind of depth and maturity to this role that is crucial.

Dunkirk, France has fallen to the German Army leaving approximately 400,000 Allied soldiers from Belgium, Great Britain and France surrounded by the enemy and stranded on the beach like sitting ducks. In my opinion, this was one of the most frightening aspects of the movie. When fighter planes (the Luftwaffe) from the German air force fly over these men who have nowhere to run and hide, you can sense the terror that must have filled that moment.

Commander Bolton is in charge of these men. Late in the movie, he has an opportunity to evacuate the beach with the British troops, but chooses to stay behind to wait on the French.

This is what we hope for in leaders. Leaders who will, when necessary, go first, and leave last, because they live the conviction that no one should be left behind. This is the kind of leadership that inspires trust and hope.

2. LEADERS DO THE RIGHT THING EVEN WHEN THEY KNOW IT WILL COST THEM.

Tom Hardy plays Farrier, a Royal Airforce pilot. The Germans not only dominate the ground war, but they dominate the air war, regularly bombing the Allied forces stranded on the beach.

Farrier (Hardy) is low on fuel. His fuel gauge stopped working some time ago. But he makes a decision to use every drop of fuel he has to keep fighting. He risks his life to take out German fighter planes that were continuing to shell Allied forces stranded on the beach and ships attempting to get these men to safety.

Farrier’s decision ends up costing him. But this is what leaders do. They do the right thing, even when they know it will cost them.

3. LEADERSHIP IS NOT THE ABSENCE OF FEAR, BUT MOVING FORWARD IN THE FACE OF FEAR.

On May 14, 1940, the BBC delivered an announcement from the British government giving an order requisitioning the use of all privately-owned pleasure boats between 30 and 100 feet in length for this rescue mission. The boats were often manned by members of the Royal Navy.

Mark Rylance, you may remember him from Bridge of Spies, plays Mr. Dawson. Dawson, owns one of the boats and determines that he, himself, with the aid of his teenage son, Peter, are up for the mission.

Rylance is incredible in this role. Dawson, his teenage son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend, George (Barry Keoghan), use Dawn’s boat (one of a total of about 700 private boats), to assist in the rescue mission. They experience the same fear anyone in this situation would experience, but they still take their boat into an incredibly dangerous situation.

After rescuing a stranded and shaken British soldier (referred to in the credits only as “Shivering Soldier” played by Cillian Murphy - Batman Begins, TDK, TDKR), Murphy’s character is confused as to why anyone would sail back towards Dunkirk. He’s adamant! He doesn’t want to go back!

Murphy’s character and Dawson have this exchange:

Shivering Soldier: You’re an old man! 
Mr. Dawson: Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our children into it? 
Shivering Soldier: You belong at home! 
Mr. Dawson: If we don’t help, there won’t be any home. 
Shivering Soldier: I’m not going back [to Dunkirk].

Mr. Dawson: There’s no hiding from this, son. We have a job to do…
Shivering Soldier: You don’t even have guns! 
Mr. Dawson: Did you have a gun? ... Did it help you against the U-boats...?

This is one of the most moving scenes in the movie. It’s one of the reasons Rylance’s performance is one of my favorites in the film.

It’s not that Mr. Dawson isn’t afraid. He is. He’s human. He understands loss and the actual risk involved in this mission, but he moves forward despite his fears. Courage is never the absence of fear (in fact, that may be insanity), courage is doing the right thing despite your fears.

Courage is never the absence of fear (in fact, that may be insanity), courage is doing the right thing despite your fears.

4. LEADERS ARE NOT ONLY BRAVE, THEY ARE COMPASSIONATE.

During the rescue mission, Mr. Dawson and his son, Peter, show compassion to people who don’t necessarily deserve it.

Commander Bolton models the same kind of courageous, yet compassionate leadership.

Real leaders are not only brave, but their bravery is often motivated and inspired by the depth of their love and compassion.

5. LEADERS KEEP HOPE ALIVE, ESPECIALLY DURING THOSE TIMES WHEN IT COULD EASILY WANE OR EVEN DIE.

It was in the aftermath of the fall of Dunkirk that Churchill delivered one of his most famous and important speeches. It was in this speech that Churchill made this legendary statement:

“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

 Churchill’s leadership has become the stuff of legends. This movie helps explain why.

6. LEADERS CREATE GREAT TEAMS.

Christopher Nolan wrote and directed Dunkirk. His direction and craftsmanship are impeccable! I think the guy is probably a genius.

Nolan always recruits great talent for his projects. He also uses some of the same people again and again. He has basically established his own version of the “A-Team.”

For instance, once again, Hans Zimmer, does the soundtrack. I’ve already indicated it’s my favorite movie soundtrack this year.

Nolan also brought Hoyte Van Hoytema back from Interstellar as the Cinematographer. The scenes in Dunkirk are astounding. I’m sure you’ll still enjoy the movie on regular format screens, but it was shot in IMAX, and it looks great in that format.

Lee Smith is back from Interstellar, TDNR and TDK as Editor! The editing is excellent and fitting for this kind of material.

I could keep going…

Most of the actors in Dunkirk are new and somewhat unknown, but Nolan does bring back some of the pros he has worked with in the past like Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy.

Nolan continues to work with great actors and technicians on movie after movie… Together, they keep expanding the boundaries when it comes to what’s possible in cinema — creatively, artistically and technically. 

Leaders who make a difference know and understand that they can’t do everything alone. They are committed to creating great teams.

Leaders who make a difference know  they can’t do everything alone. They are committed to creating great teams.

7. LEADERS THINK AHEAD.

This movie is about survival. In fact, it could be called a “survival” movie, not simply a war movie. It’s about holding on to hope, when hope seems lost. It’s about doing whatever’s necessary to “get home.”

Early in the film we’re introduced to Gibson, a young French soldier terrified by his surroundings and trying to escape the tyranny of German occupation. When he and a new “friend,” Tommy, make it on board a large ship, instead of going down under where food is being served, Gibson stays on deck. Frightened by prior bombings, Gibson doesn’t want to put himself in a chamber with no visible means of escape. His decision will become very important a little later in the movie.

8. LEADERS WILLINGLY SACRIFICE THEIR SAFETY AND SECURITY FOR THE GOOD OF THOSE THEY'VE BEEN CALLED TO LEAD.

This happens repeatedly throughout the film.

The greatest leader of all time talked about the willingness and readiness of leaders to sacrifice when he looked at a group of men who would later become leaders in a movement that would change the world and said, There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12)

9. LEADERS SPEAK IN WAYS THAT MOTIVATE, INSPIRE, STRENGTHEN AND SUSTAIN PEOPLE DURING THE MOST DESPERATE OF TIMES.

Churchill’s speech after the fall of Dunkirk is powerful and legendary! Look it up!

Here's an audio clip of the speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ojtm7Pb1QLM

The movie closes with Tommy reading a portion of this speech.

Leaders understand the power of their words to inspire courage, confidence and to keep hope alive, even when the situation seems hopeless.

10. THE SACRIFICE OF A LEADER OFTEN GOES UNNOTICED AND UNAPPRECIATED.

When the Allied forces finally make it back to Great Britain, one man looks at an air force pilot and harshly demands, “Where the hell were you?” He doesn’t feel that the Royal Airforce did enough for soldiers stranded on land.

Unknown to the person leveling the accusation, this pilot had fought valiantly before being shot down, but most of the battles in the air took place out of sight.

Real leadership often takes place while no one is watching! The sacrifice of great leaders regularly goes unnoticed and unappreciated.

11. LEADERS AFFIRM AND ENCOURAGE PEOPLE CONSISTENTLY.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie occurs on the heels of that accusation. Mr. Dawson overhears what has been said to this young fighter pilot. He doesn’t reprimand the accuser. He simply puts his arm around the pilot, points to the men the pilot had helped to rescue and says, “They know where you were…”

Leaders know the importance of affirmation and encouragement.

12. LEADERS KNOW WHERE THEY ARE GOING!

The theme of Dunkirk is “home.” Geographically and distance-wise, these soldiers are not that far away from home. They can almost “see it from here.” But when you have an enemy as fierce as the German Army under the leadership of someone as cruel as Adolph Hitler shelling you from the air and closing in on you from the land, “home” might as well be a million miles away.

Somehow everyone — from Commander Bolton, to regular soldiers, to ordinary civilians like Mr. Dawson — help the troops stay focused on getting home.

Great leaders understand the importance of knowing where they are going and they want to take as many people with them as possible.

They live with an awareness of what “could be” and what “should be.” They understand that “without a vision the people perish,” so they keep the vision in the forefront of people’s attention constantly. And their vision is compelling.

There’s so much more we could unpack when it comes to this film.

Here’s my recommendation: Go see it! It’s important!  

Watch it closely. Think about it afterward. Consider the cost of life. Consider the cost of freedom. Consider your role as a leader — a husband, wife, parent, business leader, spiritual leader, you name it…

And then, pray… That’s right, pray… If you’re a person of faith, pray that God will make you the kind of man or woman — the kind of leader — this world needs: a kind, caring, compassionate and courageous leader who does the right thing, not the easy thing; who knows where they are going; and, takes as many people with them as possible.