Sometimes, not expressing ourselves is the only way to help others flourish.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Dunkirk is a movie about the rescue of more than 300,000 British and Allied soldiers in the early days of World War II. It is a movie made by Christopher Nolan, he of The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar fame. It is a gorgeous, stressful, sonically overwhelming, tension-building ride through unbelievable circumstances. It’s unlike any other war movie you will likely see again.

The hype surrounding Dunkirk was that this wasn’t a typical Nolan endeavor. It’s light on dialogue, heavy on Hans Zimmer, void of science-fiction and comes in at a trim 107-minute runtime. This is Nolan we’re talking about, and there’s plenty that could be said about Dunkirk. We could talk about the different timelines, the humanistic themes, Harry Styles, the physics of gliding Spitfires, the amazing sweaters.

But I want to talk about how the civilians were portrayed in the film. Dunkirk finds its emotional center on the deck of the Moonstone, a private ship helmed by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their friend George (Barry Keoghan). This is fitting because the evacuation of the soldiers from Dunkirk between May 26 and June 4, 1940, was successful in large part because more than 800 “little ships”—fishing boats or pleasure cruisers manned by Naval officers as well as private British citizens—crossed the English Channel to help ferry the soldiers home.

The time we spend with Mr. Dawson, Peter and George on the Moonstone is essentially a cinematic exploration of a unique characteristic of servant leadership, what Andy Crouch calls “hidden vulnerability” in his book Strong and Weak. This, he says, is the “drama of leadership.”

Humans are meant to flourish. Flourishing happens when we move toward living with both authority and vulnerability—“up and to the right,” as Crouch puts it. Authority is the capacity for meaningful action. Vulnerability is the exposure to meaningful loss. To move toward both at the same time is what it means to bear God’s image, to love like Jesus.

Near the beginning of the film, as Mr. Dawson, Peter and George make their way out to sea, they pass a British warship, loaded with troops, heading in the opposite direction—to England. The vessel dwarfs the Moonstone. It is a scene of utter vulnerability. While the crew of the Moonstone was not as vulnerable as the soldiers they were sent to rescue, they still faced a day at sea latent with the possibility of doom and loss. In order to carry out their task well, in order to save those without any capacity to save themselves, they would need to hide their feelings of exposure and vulnerability. Writes Crouch: “. . . the leader must bear the shared vulnerabilities that the community does not currently have the authority to address.” We would be hard pressed to find a more noble or Christ-like task. “The most important thing we are called to do is help our communities meet their deepest vulnerability with appropriate authority,” says Crouch. “And it turns out that in order to do that, we often must bear vulnerability that no one sees.”

Hiding vulnerability is a way of extending mercy. It is something that all leaders understand—even those who don’t know they are leaders. When the Moonstone departs, George hops aboard. “We’re going to war, George!” Mr. Dawson warns. George’s reply is simple but profound. “I could be useful,” he says. This is the heart of servant leadership, which, as Crouch defines, is “always about others’ flourishing, not our own . . .”

The civilian crew is most tested in their leadership and mercy during their interactions with the “shivering soldier” (Cillian Murphy), who they rescue from the bombed-out hull of a ship somewhere between England and Dunkirk. The soldier is in a fragile mental condition. “He’s shell-shocked, George,” Mr. Dawson says. “He’s not himself. He might never be himself again.”

When the soldier learns that they’re going to Dunkirk and not back to port, he lashes out at Mr. Dawson, who responds firmly but calmly, “We have a job to do.” After a second attempt to get Mr. Dawson to change course fails, the soldier becomes irate. A brief scuffle ensues on the deck, and George suffers a serious head injury, which proves to be fatal.

Later, when the soldier asks Peter how the boy’s doing, Peter spitefully retorts that George is not doing well. The soldier doesn’t handle the news well and sinks further into his post-traumatic agony. After the Moonstone is on its way back to England, the soldier again asks about George. By now, George is dead. But Peter, knowing the soldier’s delicate constitution and knowing that revealing the truth would only inflict more damage, tells him that George will be okay. The soldier’s face becomes almost peaceful, and he returns to his seat. And in what might be the most powerful moment of the whole film, Peter then turns to his dad. Mr. Dawson looks at his son and nods.

(I’m not crying. You’re crying.)

Crouch understands that, in moments such as these, revealing our vulnerabilities can “paralyze . . . the community we are responsible for, robbing them of the opportunity for real flourishing.” Given the post-traumatic stress from which the soldier was suffering, the truth about George would have been absolutely paralyzing. Peter had every right to tell the truth, to heap guilt. Instead he chose mercy. Instead he chose to keep the pain of loss to himself for the good of someone else. In Strong and Weak, Crouch includes a quote from Max De Pree: “Bad leaders inflict pain. Good leaders bear it.”

It doesn’t take long before you realize that the safest place in the whole movie is on the Moonstone. It’s the safest place because they are exhibiting both authority and vulnerability, living into what it means to be made in God’s image. It’s the safest place because no matter what ordeal they run into, no matter how berzerk Cillian Murphy gets, you know you can trust these ordinary civilians to literally keep calm and carry on.

That sounds trite, but when we grasp how integral hidden vulnerability is to servant-hearted leadership, we see that the phrase is anything but trite. There’s a deep solidarity and care for others. There’s a willingness to sail straight into war, armed only with life jackets and merlot-red turtlenecks, because that’s what was asked of you. Because others need to have their vulnerability borne by you.

I left the theater amazed at this selfless love. I left thinking how soft we are (by “we,” I mean all of us, not just Millennials or members of iGen or whoever else you blame for society’s problems). That softness comes from the blessing of not having to confront an enemy like the Nazis on our doorstep, to be sure, but it also comes from a deeply ingrained individualism that values expression over just about everything else. Social media has radicalized our expressive, individualized tendencies. We have all been given a platform to express any and everything—especially our vulnerabilities and gripes and frustrations.

Of course, it’s entirely necessary to want others to help bear our burdens (Galatians 6:2). And a “keep calm and carry on” ethos has a tendency to slide into its own version of rugged individualism, one where exterior perfection is more important than internal, heart-level motivations. This is the soil in which pride and legalism thrive. So long as we look good on the outside, people will think we have it all together on the inside, as well. This is why Don Draper always wore suits: inside he’s a mess, but by golly, he looks really sharp.

When self-expression is touted as the main way to secure identity and significance, it emboldens our innate desire to serve ourselves at the expense of others. Because softness is not empathy; softness is a posture curved inward. Even in the church, the trendiness of “authenticity” oftentimes leads to an authority-less, self-focused faith. It seems that we, in our late modernist societies, are losing our ability—or even desire—to put aside our own vulnerabilities for the common good. I am guilty of this. Maybe it’s because I still listen to emo, but I do not like showing mercy or hiding my frustrations and vulnerabilities, especially with my wife and son. I can be a real jerk, the opposite of Peter, in the very moments when my family needs me to give them courage to live up and to the right.

Mr. Dawson and Peter were instruments of God’s mercy and grace to me. Their actions and disposition stirred something inside me. They helped me see the limits of expression and the beauty of servanthood. They convicted me of my sin while showing me a way to pursue flourishing, a way to expect trouble and loss in this world while still exhibiting courage, wisdom and impeccable fashion sense. After all, it was G.K. Chesterton, the British theologian, who once wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” If that beauty is grounded in servant leadership and goes on to include charming, slightly formal clothing choices, I think we’d all find flourishing more appealing.

Trevor Sides

Author Trevor Sides

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