Month: July 2017

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Its Critics

If you pay attention to movies, you know that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which was released in the United States on Friday (and on July 13 in Britain), has been a tremendous hit with film critics, winning a fresh score of 92% at Rotten Tomatoes. Media outlets across the political spectrum appear to agree in conferring high honors on Dunkirk. For example, The Guardian acclaims it as “Nolan’s best film so far,” describes it as a “visceral piece of film-making,” and compares Nolan to Stanley Kubrick. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal, which usually doesn’t find itself on the same side of most issues as The Guardian, praises Nolan for having “created something new in the annals of war films—an intimate epic.”

The world, of course, would not be what it is if somebody wasn’t critical of Nolan’s choices. A handful of critics have complained that the film does not have much of an emotional core because there is little character development, and One Thing after Another can understand where they are coming from; Dunkirk is an inspired piece of filmmaking, but it is not perfect. One Thing after Another, however, is less forgiving of more political criticisms of the movie. In a mixed review that admires Dunkirk’s ability to immerse the audience in the experiences of the protagonists but criticizes the lack of character development, Jacques Mandelbaum in Le Monde (one of France’s pre-eminent newspapers) takes Nolan to task for turning his movie into “a purely English history.” “In this film, where are the 120,000 French soldiers also evacuated from Dunkirk?” Mandelbaum asks. “Where are the other 40,000 who sacrificed themselves to defend the city against an enemy superior in arms and in numbers?” Mandelbaum would like to rescue the story of Dunkirk from its status as an exclusively British epic; the narrative he desires to see is a Franco-British one. This narrative would stress the courageous efforts of French troops at Lille and Dunkirk who bought time for the men on the beach—both French and British—to be rescued in a joint Allied operation. It would also express the pathos of the relations between allies who were now fated to go their separate ways—the British saving themselves to fight another day and liberate the Continent, the French succumbing to defeat and the tender mercies of Petain and German occupation. This type of criticism of is intelligible. France has its own story to tell about a battle that took place on French soil and involved hundreds of thousands of French troops who generally acquitted themselves in a courageous fashion. One can understand how tiresome it must feel to have this tale usurped or appropriated by the British. Yet there is more than one way of looking at Dunkirk, and many of these ways do not involve surveying the battle in its totality. Nolan is clearly interested in using Dunkirk as the setting for a timeless survival story. In so doing, he recasts the traditional British memory of Dunkirk which stresses the virtues of pluckiness, improvisation, courage, and the stiff upper lip. Instead, Nolan’s Dunkirk is a grim, austere, and often terrifying story where men must face terrible choices as they run a gauntlet of nightmares. As The Guardian puts it, Dunkirk is not so much a war movie as a disaster film; the characters, often with limited means, try to evade or, at most, mitigate the great harm of war. Indeed, Dunkirk reminds One Thing after Another of Samuel Hynes’ The Soldiers’ Tale (1998) with its evocation of the soldier as helpless victim before the often indiscriminate and sweeping reach of modern war (see Slate‘s comments to this point). At the end of the film, one of the characters, now safely in Britain, gets hold of a newspaper, and in a sometimes faltering voice, reads aloud Winston Churchill’s famous June 4, 1940 oration in the House of Commons (commonly referred to as the “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches” speech). How strange and incongruous these words sound in the mouth of an exhausted British soldier who has done everything he could to escape a French beach, surviving rifle fire, artillery bombardment, strafing, bombing, and the sinking of several vessels. This moment makes us aware of the degree to which Nolan seeks to overturn the story that has dominated British memories of the evacuation.

At bottom, Dorothy Rabinowitz’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Review (as opposed to the positive film review by Joe Morgenstern which is cited above) suffers from the same kind of problem as Mandelbaum’s criticism. Rabinowitz accuses Nolan of “dumbing down” the story of Dunkirk because he did not supply the full historical context for the evacuation. Churchill, she complains, never makes an appearance in the film and, as she points out, it’s almost impossible, unless one already knows the story of Dunkirk, to see that the British characters in the film are pitted against Nazi Germany. Rabinowitz attributes the worst motives to Nolan by dwelling on his desire to make a “universal” and “relevant” story that neither gets bogged down in “politics” nor seems “old-fashioned.” She concludes that these aims show how little Nolan thinks of his audience; he does not wish, she argues, to tax their intellect too much. Like Mandelbaum, she wants a more complete story, but her version would involve Churchill, the discussions of the British cabinet, the conferences of generals and admirals, a full accounting of what occurred on the beach, and so on. In graduate school, One Thing after Another learned that a book reviewer should generally criticize a work on the basis of its arguments, not for neglecting to cover the topic that the reviewer wished the author had tackled. That piece of advice seems particularly apposite in this case. Rabinowitz appears incensed that Nolan did not depict Dunkirk the way she would have done it. As we have already seen, Nolan’s goals are far different from hers. She is interested in presenting what amounts to a history lesson in semi-documentary form. He is more concerned with the experience of individuals who try, each in his own way, to deal with the disaster at Dunkirk. Again, there is more than one way to portray this story.

One Thing after Another will go further, though, and argue that in other cases, Rabinowitz’s preferred approach to telling a World War II story has already been tried and found wanting. From the early 1960s, starting with The Longest Day (1962), and continuing until A Bridge Too Far (1977), Hollywood was plagued by “blockbuster history” films about World War II (to use Stephen Ambrose’s phrase). These movies, which also included The Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), were huge productions that involved enormous casts and long running times. They interlaced the big picture with the little one, attempting to integrate the stories of politicians and generals with common soldiers. They could be entertaining and compelling in spots, but they generally faltered under the weight of their own ambitions. Film critics do not consider them great films, and historians do not think of them as great history. This sub-genre, then, has already been done before and, by most accounts, has failed. Why would Nolan want to give Dunkirk the blockbuster history treatment which is what Rabinowtiz seems to demand of him? Perhaps this is what Nolan meant when he said he did not want to make an “old-fashioned” war film.

Mandelbaum and Rabinowitz ought to understand that one can see the story of Dunkirk from a variety of perspectives. In recognizing that fact, they should ask themselves, first, if Nolan has seized upon an interesting and worthwhile perspective and, second, if he has related his tale well. Most critics, it appears, have answered “yes” to both questions.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Harvard versus “Unrecognized Single-Gender Organizations”

Those of you who pay attention to academia have surely heard about the uproar surrounding the recommendations recently issued by the Committee on the Unrecognized Single-Gender Social Organizations (USGSO) at Harvard University. (For a link to the committee’s report, see this article in The Atlantic—for some reason, One Thing after Another has experienced difficulty installing the link in this post.) Although some media outlets have claimed the report recommends banning fraternities, sororities, and final clubs (which are the so-called “unrecognized single-gender social organizations” in question), that is not precisely the case. Harvard has not recognized male final clubs for over 30 years. These private organizations have no relationship to the university (hence the adjective “unrecognized”); it could not ban them if it wanted to. Rather, what the report endorses is prohibiting students from joining USGSO on pain of disciplinary action. The exact wording of the recommendation is as follows:

Harvard students may neither join nor participate in final clubs, fraternities or sororities, or other similar private, exclusionary social organizations that are exclusively or predominantly made up of Harvard students, whether they have any local or national affiliation, during their time in the College. The College will take disciplinary action against students who are found to be participating in such organizations. Violations will be adjudicated by the Administrative Board.

Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard, is now considering the report’s proposals.

There appear to be two distinct but related reasons that Harvard has contemplated this course. First, the report argues that USGSOs are discriminatory and exclusionary; something needs to be done to “bring them into greater accord with the forward-looking aspirations of the University.” The principles that govern these bodies, so the argument goes, run counter to the spirit that ought to infuse Harvard. Interestingly enough, the report dwells on the damage done to those who feel excluded by USGSOs. This position has been ridiculed by critics who point out that Harvard is one of the most exclusive universities in the world, and its students are among the most economically privileged. Under these circumstances, complaints about exclusion appears to show at best a lack of self-awareness and, at worst, a sensational level of chutzpah. Harvard’s administration could argue that the exclusion practiced by the university in admissions is based on merit rather than, say, something so arbitrary as gender. Yet some critics have argued that admissions are indeed arbitrary and open mainly to those who enjoy a wide range of social and economic privileges. Moreover, as the dissenting opinion of one member (Professor David Haig) of the Committee on the Unrecognized Single-Gender Social Organizations points out, it is not at all clear that students at Harvard feel so terribly excluded that they favor the actions contemplated by the administration.

One Thing after Another is somewhat more interested in the second reason, partly because it is associated with a more universal problem and partly because a number of observers have neglected it: Harvard’s administration has clearly been concerned for some time about the connection between USGSOs and sexual assault. A Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault issued a report in March 2016 making this connection, pointing out that whereas 31% of Harvard’s female undergraduates reported experiencing “non-consensual sexual contact” in their four years at the school, 47% of female seniors participating in final clubs had experienced such contact since entering the university. The task force argued that the male final clubs encouraged “a strong sense of sexual entitlement,” reinforced misogynistic behavior, and promoted “the marginalization of women.” In May of that year, Faust made a series of important changes that were based on this report (e.g. members of USGSOs would no longer be eligible for team captaincies, student leadership positions, and certain fellowships). Then as now, the administration did not dwell on USGSOs’ association with sexual assault. Rather, it claimed (to use the words of Rakesh Khurana, Harvard’s Dean), that “all of these unrecognized single-gender social organizations are at odds with Harvard College’s educational philosophy and its commitment to a diverse living and learning experience.”

Reducing the question to a matter of educational philosophy, as the administration seems determined to do, may allow the university to avoid the bad publicity associated with what appears to be the prevalence of sexual assault at Harvard, but it hardly seems to justify the dramatic action the university is contemplating: punishing students who belong to certain organizations that have no connection to the school. Unlike the mafia, the Hasty Pudding Club is not a criminal enterprise. Where would this kind of proscription end? What exactly would be the boundaries of the “forward-looking aspirations of the University”?

Moreover, by de-emphasizing the issue of sexual assault, the administration has allowed its critics to avoid dealing with the problem as well. Steven Pinker, the prominent professor of psychology at Harvard, has rightfully argued that the university has no right to impose values on it students and that the proposed policy is not “effective, rationally justified, evidence-based.” When they do these kind of things, he asserts, universities like Harvard do not look like “dispassionate forums” for “analyzing problems”; rather, they appear to be “institutions determined to impose their ideology and values on a diverse population by brute force.” In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has portrayed the issue as a matter of student autonomy. He sees two tendencies at work on college campuses today: a desire to treat students as adults who are capable of making “autonomous judgments about their social lives” (or at least as people who should be allowed to make mistakes within the safe confines of an undergraduate campus) versus a belief that “administrators of residential life can enlighten students morally by way of imposing bureaucratic rules and structures, resulting in more inclusive, equal campuses.” Pinker and Friedersdorf’s arguments carry a great deal of weight with One Thing after Another (which, by the by, shares the same undergraduate alma mater with Friedersdorf).

The difficulty with these arguments, though, is that some groups of students at Harvard appear to be using their autonomy, freedom, privilege, or whatever you want to call it to injure others through sexual assault. One thinks here of John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” which amounts to the idea that the only limit to one’s liberty should be that he or she cannot harm others. His articulation of this idea in the first chapter of On Liberty is instructive:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.

In other words, the promotion of an “educational philosophy” and “forward-looking aspirations” are insufficient reasons for curtailing a community’s freedom. Preventing something like sexual assault, however, does warrant the imposition of limits on individuals’ autonomy.

But are the recommendations proposed by the Committee on the Unrecognized Single-Gender Social Organizations the best means of attaining this end? Would striking a blow against USGSOs (including those that have recently turned coed or have begun to do so) really solve the problem? Are there other means of dealing with the problem that do not resemble an indiscriminate “sledgehammer,” to employ Pinker’s term? Some critics of Harvard have argued that individual transgressors should be punished rather than entire groups of students or organizations. This argument seems to make sense. Unfortunately, it is often fiendishly difficult to get to the bottom of a sexual assault case. Moreover, both the criminal justice system and Title IX proceedings have shown themselves to be flawed means of obtaining justice (in related news, Columbia University just settled out of court with Paul Nungesser, the student whom Emma Sulkowicz—she of the famous Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)—accused of rape). One Thing after Another would suggest that Harvard is considering the desperate expedients proposed by the committee because the existing means of dealing with sexual assault have proven themselves insufficient.

One Thing after Another realizes that it has produced more questions and criticisms than answers in this post. But it would like to leave its gentle readers with two  thoughts. First, Harvard needs to be more honest and forthright about the problem of sexual assault. If the statistics produced by the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault are legitimate and the university believes it has an important role to play in the lives of its students, then it needs to display the courage of its convictions and attack the issue head-on instead of emphasizing culture and values. Yes, promoting different culture and values may affect sexual behavior in the long run (although universities might overestimate the significance of their impact on student attitudes and conduct). But how exactly does the school plan to stop sexual assault right now? Second, Harvard, like other residential colleges that increasingly betray nanny-ish tendencies, ought to step back and reflect on what role institutions realistically can and ought to play in students’ lives. For a wide variety of reasons, colleges have sought to exert control over the most intimate parts of their students’ lives. That exertion has been attended by all manner of complications as the authority and competence of schools have been stretched to the breaking point. Is it time to develop a new relationship between the university and its students?

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.