Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a dark, confusing story about the choices people make when facing death.

Some turn out to be brave, some cowards. Some sacrifice while others get petty. Ultimately, some are lucky and some are not, and the lucky ones get to go home.

Not your typical summer blockbuster, but we live in dark and confusing times. It has already done $165 million at the box office, crushing contenders like “Cars 3” and “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

“Dunkirk” is a story about World War II, but it’s also a story about history – who gets to write it, and how it changes. That makes it a perfect film for the summer of 2017, while we are battling over the meaning of monuments and other symbols from the distant past.

The film’s action takes place after French and English forces have been routed by Nazi Germany in 1940, stranding 400,000 men on a beach. The enemy is present, but mostly off screen. In this movie, the conflict takes place inside the hearts and minds of the soldiers as well as the pilots and sailors who come to their rescue.

There is a sort of happy ending. Most of them make it back to England, and as soon as they land they start to see how their chaotic retreat is being viewed as a moral victory that the people desperately need to believe if they are going to fight on.

Here in 21st century America, we are in a big battle over who gets to tell our story, because the winner gets to define what kind of country we are. That’s what’s behind the movement to take down statues of pro-slavery Confederate generals that decorate public parks in southern cities with large African- American populations, and it’s also what’s behind the fight to keep them up.

I keep hearing that it’s not just Confederate monuments that are at risk, it’s history itself. It’s being erased and rewritten to fit modern ideas about right and wrong.

OK, but that’s not a crime – it’s what history is. It’s a story that keeps getting rewritten again and again, sometimes with new information, but often just with a new perspective about what’s important.

There is a new biography of Ulysses S. Grant coming out in October, written by Ron Chernow, the author of the Alexander Hamilton biography that inspired the Broadway musical.

Advance word says that this book will re-examine Grant’s presidency, which other historians have ranked among the worst ever.

Historians closer to Grant’s time focus on the corruption scandals that disgraced his friends and close associates during Grant’s presidency. But for Chernow, the work Grant did as president to fight for freedom and justice for former slaves was more important than the scandals, work that was undone after he left office.

If history really were a done deal, you wouldn’t need a new book about Grant, or a new movie about World War II. But just as the past is always with us, the present influences our understanding of what happened.

What we are arguing about is not history, but politics. It’s less a fight over what happened, and more about what we want to happen next.

Until a few days ago, the history lesson I kept getting from Republicans was how their party had been the real champions of civil rights, and it gets unfair treatment by Democrats and fellow travelers in the press.

The party was formed in the 1850s to bring all the anti-slavery factions under one umbrella.

The slave states were all run by Democrats, and it was Democrats who seceded from the union, starting the Civil War.

After the war, it was Democrats who instituted Jim Crow laws, oppressing Southern blacks.

And when the Civil Rights Act finally passed in 1964, the biggest opponents were Southern Democrats. Without Republican support, the bill could not been made law. All true, but the story didn’t end there.

Southern whites left the Democrats after the Civil Rights Act and now the South is solid for Republicans.

This week, northern members of the “Party of Lincoln” like Donald Trump and Paul LePage, are standing up for monuments honoring defenders of slavery that were erected by the architects of segregation (all Democrats). Trump and LePage say they want to preserve the past, but they clearly have an eye on the future – one where their party keeps winning on Election Day.

That’s why this fight is about more than just statues. As the movie “Dunkirk” shows, if you tell the story, sometimes you can win the war.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

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Twitter: gregkesich

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