Movies, and stories generally, are structured as they are for a reason. Conflict builds, obstacles intensify, the downward spiral accelerates until the protagonist reaches bottom. There is seemingly no way out. No hope. But then, the turn.
It usually happens in the film’s third act, sometimes in the final moments. The tension climaxes to an unbearable degree, and then catharsis: despair and darkness suddenly met with a glimmer of hope. A rescuer arrives: unexpected, unearned salvation from out of nowhere. In a land of deep darkness, a light dawns (Isa. 9:2). Sound familiar?
Stories can’t help but gravitate toward such climaxes. Why? Because this is the plot of The Greatest Story. This is the “turn” that compels us so universally: a rescuer who saves us because we can’t save ourselves, who plucks us out of the pit of death and gives us new life; a savior with the power to deliver us “from the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13) and “from this body of death” (Rom. 7:24).
Our bodies tense, a lump rises in our throat, the tears well in our eyes when we watch these scenes in movies. We know this is us too. These scenes, even if they don’t depict Jesus explicitly, often remind us of the beauty, the heroism, the unearned gift of our divine Rescuer.
These scenes, even if they don’t depict Jesus explicitly, remind us of the beauty, the heroism, the unearned gift of our divine Rescuer.
There are countless movie scenes that beautifully echo this theologically significant moment of messianic rescue, but the following nine (in alphabetical order) are, I find, particularly powerful.
All Is Lost (2013) — A hand from above
J. C. Chandor’s “lost at sea” thriller is a one-man movie that follows a man (Robert Redford) who fights to survive when his yacht starts taking on water somewhere in the Indian Ocean. The majority of the mostly wordless film finds Redford marshaling all his energy and creative resources to save himself. But after setback after setback, confidence in his survival skills wanes. In the film’s powerful final scene (watch here), Redford’s character appears to give up. Having accidentally burned his raft after trying to light a signal fire, he lets himself sink, drifting deeper into the sea. The titular moment has come: All is lost indeed. Still conscious, he spots a flashing light on the surface. He starts swimming toward it, and in the film’s final shot we see a hand reach down and grab Redford, pulling him to oxygen again. We don’t know whose hand it is; only that rescue has arrived. A lost man is pulled out of the depths.
Captain Phillips (2013) — “Captain, you’re safe now.”
This heart-pounding film from director Paul Greengrass (United 93) narrates the true story of the Maersk Alabama hijacking, in which merchant mariner Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) was taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009. The film’s third act—showing the Navy SEAL operation to rescue Phillips—is almost unbearably intense to watch, culminating in an emotional scene where a just-rescued and deeply shaken Phillips is treated by Navy medics. In the scene (watch below), the medic treating Phillips tries to calm him as she surveys his injuries. “Captain, you’re safe now, okay?” she says. In shock and still processing the fact and manner of his rescue, Phillips starts crying and repeatedly exclaims: “Thank you!” Nearly dead one minute, alive the next, Phillips can’t fathom what just happened. “Thank you” is all that makes sense. It’s all that needs to make sense.
Children of Men (2006) — Rescued by tomorrow
The third act of Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian thriller (based on the P. D. James novel) is a relentlessly dark, punishing action sequence in which hope breaks through only in the film’s final minute. Theo (Clive Owen) and Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey)—who has just delivered a baby in a world where women have stopped having babies—are trying to survive amid a violent battle in a refugee camp. Their goal is to take a small rowboat out to sea to rendezvous with an ark-like vessel, fittingly named Tomorrow. In order to get Kee and the baby to the Tomorrow safely, Theo sacrifices his life (his final word: “Jesus”). Alone with her baby in a small rowboat, and her protector dead, Kee is at her most vulnerable. But as the music of Christian composer John Tavener plays, the fog at sea clears, and the Tomorrow emerges (watch here). Upon a bleak and hopeless world, hope dawns.
Dunkirk (2017) — “Home”
The keys to this powerful scene (watch below) are the music and the eyes: Hans Zimmer’s pulsating score, to be exact, and Kenneth Branagh’s eyes. Branagh plays a Royal Navy commander tasked with overseeing the evacuation of trapped British troops at Dunkirk. Just when all seems lost, with the enemy encircling the beleaguered troops, hundreds of British civilian boats arrive. The rescue of more than 300,000 otherwise doomed troops begins. Zimmer’s score has until this point been a relentless, dissonant bombardment meant to mimic the soldiers’ increasingly hopeless plight—a wall of sound that employs the Shepard tone to convey perpetual escalation. As the musical tension climaxes we see Branagh on the mole, his eyes enlarging as he sees something in the distance. He looks through binoculars. “What do you see?” someone asks. “Home,” he replies—a word matched in the music that at last resolves to a “home” major chord. We see the triumphant arrival of rescue boats, and then Branagh’s eyes fill with tears (as ours do) as the music swells. We resonate because we too cannot get “home” on our own. Home comes for us.
Home Alone (1990) — “Come on, let’s get you home.”
Though less grandiose than some of the scenes on this list, the climax of Home Alone captures a lovely moment of grace and rescue. Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) has worked hard for his salvation for much of the film, priding himself on the ways he has managed to thrive independently and evade the burglars who seek to harm him. But in the end he can’t save himself. Captured by the “Wet Bandits” and hung up on a door, Kevin is all out of tricks. But just as he’s about to lose a finger to Harry (Joe Pesci), Kevin is rescued by the snow shovel-wielding neighbor (“Old Man Marley”) he once feared. Having knocked out the bad guys, Marley (Roberts Blossom) picks Kevin up, grandpa-like, and utters the words that ease the movie into its restorative finale: “Come on, let’s get you home.”
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) — “At dawn, look to the east.”
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is full of moments that could be included on this list, but one that stands out is the moment in The Two Towers when the tide turns in the Battle of Helm’s Deep. It has been a long, bloody night, and the orc armies of Saruman have penetrated all lines of defense. With nowhere to go and seemingly endless enemy forces on their way inside, our heroes have little hope of survival. But just at this moment—perhaps the darkest point in the whole trilogy—Gimli says, “The sun is rising,” and we remember Gandalf’s promised return: “Look to my coming at first light, on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the east.” The promise comes true. In a scene (watch below) that unmistakably alludes to Christ’s second advent (see Rev. 19:11–14) Gandalf-the-White appears on a white horse (Shadowfax), behind him the Rohirrim remnant and the rising sun. They charge down the mountain into the fray, bringing hope and light to the beleaguered people dwelling in deep darkness.
The Pianist (2002) — “Don’t thank me, thank God.”
Most of this Holocaust drama’s 150 minutes are utterly bleak, as we watch Władysław Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a Jewish pianist, try to survive World War II in Poland. Increasingly gaunt and starving as the film goes on, Szpilman appears to meet his doom when Nazi captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann) discovers him hiding in the ruins of Warsaw. But instead of killing him, Hosenfeld saves Szpilman. In one of cinema’s most truly arresting musical moments (watch here), Hosenfeld listens as Szpilman sits down at a grand piano—in a cold, bombed-out house—and plays Chopin’s “Ballade in G Minor.” Hosenfeld not only spares Szpilman, but he also risks his own life to help him, hiding Szpilman in an attic where he brings him food and even gives him the coat off his own back. Because of Hosenfeld’s unexpected, out-of-nowhere grace, Szpilman is by the end of the film in a tuxedo again, performing Chopin with a backing orchestra. We see Hosenfeld, meanwhile, bruised and bloodied in Soviet captivity, where he would die in 1952. “I don’t know how to thank you,” Szpilman tells Hosenfeld in their last interaction. Hosenfeld responds as anyone should to unmerited grace: “Don’t thank me. Thank God.”
The Road (2009) — Found by a family
John Hillcoat’s film is just as dark as its source material: Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel about a father and son seeking to survive in a world so scarce of food that many humans have turned to cannibalism. Yet there are moments of quiet and grace—one scene in the ruins of a church stands out—in this narrative of total depravity. In the film’s final scene (watch here), after man (Viggo Mortensen) has died and boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is left alone, all seems lost. The boy encounters a man (Guy Pearce) on the beach who offers to let him come with him rather than be alone. Everything in the child’s experience says he shouldn’t trust him; that he’s better off alone; that unconditional gifts should not be trusted. But he trusts the man, and he is saved. The film ends with the man, his wife, and two kids adopting the boy as their own. “We were following you, did you know that?” the mother says. “We were so worried about you, but now we don’t have to worry about a thing.”
Saving Private Ryan (1998) — “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic is one big rescue operation. Few films more powerfully capture the cost of salvation. Many characters die, and much blood is split, all so that one (seemingly unimportant and undeserving) private (Matt Damon) can be saved. Private Ryan himself can’t understand it. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he says when Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad find him and announce their mission to take him out of harm’s way (watch below). “Why do I deserve to go? Why not any of these guys? They all fought just as hard as me.” Indeed, one cannot understand unconditional election; one simply receives it with gratitude. At the film’s climax when a dying Miller uses his last words to tell Ryan, “Earn this,” we rejoice that these were not the final words of Christ on the cross. We know what Private Ryan doubtless knew as well, in that moment. We can never earn such amazing grace.