Spoilers to follow.
“We’re regimental brothers, mate. That’s just the way it is.”
Midway through Dunkirk’s brisk 106 minutes, Harry Styles’ Alex is faced with a vital decision. He, his fellow Highlanders and Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy are trapped in the hull of a ship under fire. Enemy bullets pose a direct threat to their safety, echoing as they pierce the metal. The ones that don’t kill them make them take on more water as the high-tide approaches. Their options? Stay put and drown, or lose weight by sending Aneurin Barnard’s “Gibson,” a Frenchman disguised as a fellow British soldier, ashore to certain death. If that doesn’t work, young Tommy is next. Country before humanity, and failing that, regiment before humanity as well.
That’s just the way it is.
The expansion and dilation of time play a significant role in Nolan’s big-budget experiment. Where his $6,000 debut Following presented a tri-pronged, non-linear puzzle to be solved, Dunkirk foregoes the mystery and provides its keys up front. The lads on land will be in the thick of it for about a week, waiting for their next opportunity to escape, wishing the clock would tick faster. The civilian vessel “Moonstone” will speed towards them for about a day, the open waters around it expanding infinitely and what feels like in all directions, with time being almost mutable amidst its play of morality. And The Royal Air Force have but an hour before they run out of fuel and luck, making the most of a clock that ticks far too quickly.
In a linear sense, The RAF’s perspective is the story’s climax in its entirety, spread out in order to echo through the rest of the narrative, but it’s also the timeline allowed the most breathing-room, often dancing amidst a mid-air chase as the planes attempt to align. The other two timelines; Mark Rylance’s pleasure yacht-turned rescue ship and the soldiers’ attempts to survive at the potential cost of their souls, feel in a constant state of climax themselves. Dunkirk’s structure not only manipulates each story’s perspective, putting us in an entirely different pair of shoes as we switch between them, it also allows a sense of urgency to permeate what would otherwise be a traditional narrative – the way things are usually done.
You’d struggle to find a setup such as this in any other film, yet even this unique use of form and structure is not without precedence. Dunkirk is, in many ways, the climax of Nolan’s own career up until this point. In a structural sense, all the films he’s written (i.e. all the films he’s directed except Insomnia), have used the relative passage of time to their advantage. Where Following (1998) works almost only as experiment, offering little by way of logical or emotional resonance between its timelines, it is, in fact, a blueprint for much of what was still to come for the blockbuster auteur. The same could be said of his short film Doodlebug (1997), a silly albeit intriguing romp with the same lead actor playing a similarly obsessed character, where the mystery is not time but rather the layers of reality, with the slight mis-alignment of the film’s three timelines punctuating an existential head-spin.
His next film, Memento (2000) features two timelines charging in opposite directions; the forward-moving timeline spanning under an hour, as anterograde amnesiac Leonard Shelby provides the expository backdrop for the rest of the story, narrating within the walls of a single hotel room. It's a black & white foundation that itself features inserts of flashbacks which manipulate time and space and memory. The coloured timeline moving in reverse features the events of the main plot, spanning several days and nights (you’d have to count exactly how many; it doesn’t really matter) as each resumption of this narrative takes us a step backward, as we discover each event for the first time alongside Leonard. It isn’t just the opposing directionality of these stories that unifies them, but a devilish manipulation of time in either case. Facts are perceived as linear. They can, at least seemingly, not be manipulated, and the black & white timeline’s “real time” feel is contrasted perfectly with the existential ruminations between full nights of sleep as Leonard tracks down a phantom killer across Los Angeles.
David Julyan’s score plays an integral part in this differentiation, somewhere between a clock and a heartbeat when Leonard’s mystery conversation partner approaches, but it takes on a more melodious, more thoughtful, more expansive feel as Leonard wakes up in strange places and with strange people, reflecting on the bizarre state of his existence for an indeterminate period with a determinate endpoint. As much as non-linear storytelling has been a part of his M.O. since the beginning, the contraction and expansion of time (helped along masterfully by editor Dody Dorn) have been partners in crime in Nolan’s films for nearly as long.
The medley of time and music that have come to define Nolan’s films took a more defined trajectory in Batman Begins (2005), a film that remains similarly non-linear for about half its runtime. Bruce Wayne's quick treks across the Tibetan mountains and his training montages in monasteries provide the perfect conversational backdrop against which to introduce elements of his past. Lengthy, isolated scenes, some taking place years apart, are set amidst the rotting foundation of the Western world as the flashback narrative catches up to his eastward escape, reflected in Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s use of Western strings and Eastern drums, unifying upon the emergence of Batman. (This was the first Nolan film edited by Lee Smith, who’s worked with Nolan ever since)
His next film, The Prestige (2006) is an equally experimental work, allowing the director to return to the three non-linear timelines he has so much affinity for, although this time with a structural framework that allows them purpose: the discovery of information alongside the characters. Christian Bale’s Alfred Borden reads the diary of Hugh Jackman’s The Great Danton, within which Danton himself writes of reading Borden’s own manuscript. Time expands as we descend through the layers of reality, with Borden reading Danton’s diary in his cell, awaiting execution, as Danton chronicles his obsessive pursuit of “The Real Transported Man” while reading a lengthier account of Borden’s life, from falling in love to having children to losing his wife.
The Prestige is perhaps most similar to Inception (2010) in this way, even though the two couldn't look more different. Riding a simultaneous “kick” up the layers of Inception’s dream-levels has a similar effect to Borden and Danton discovering new information, each instance resonating emotionally between the timelines, taking us “outward” to portray its impact. This structural similarity is hardly a coincidence, and it’s perhaps most indicative of Dunkirk's methodology.
In The Prestige, emotional information is made to line up even though the actual discovery of the same happens years apart. In Inception, the perceived simultaneity of the cross-cut timelines is the very thing upon which the film’s entire structure hinges. The seconds in the van, the minutes in the rotating building and the hours in the Alps must align at a specific point (“the kick”), turning the otherwise invisible manipulation of time through editing – expansion in the falling van, contraction in the Bond-inspired snow fortress, and a floating middle-ground where time feels almost irrelevant – into a textual part of the experience. (And of course, Zimmer’s Édith Piaf-inspired score is integral to feeling said manipulation, the same way he uses ticking in Dunkirk). In both the dream heist and the wartime beach rescue, we want Nolan and Smith's disparate timelines to align at just the right moment, as it means our characters’ escape and survival.
Dunkirk's outcome is projected at its outset. It's even hinted at from a God's-eye view, as the RAF Spitfires fly past significant narrative moments from hundreds of feet in the air. The shift between the three perspectives in inevitable, as is their convergence. The boys on the beach will inevitably be rescued by Mark Rylance’s yacht. Tom Hardy’s pilot Farrier will inevitably take down a bomber that threatens them. They will all eventually share a victorious scene, but Nolan never actually gives us a proper three-way alignment – at least not when we’d expect. The stories cross paths on a number of occasions: Rylance picks up Hardy’s fallen partner Collins just as he does Cillian Murphy, who earlier prevented Tommy and Alex from boarding a barge; the two are subsequently picked up by the very same yacht. The three timelines do briefly collide amidst a false victory, when Farrier attacks a bomber above the Moonstone as the boys are being pulled from the water.
It's in this moment of false victory that Nolan and Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema capture what might be the most beautiful shot of their careers. Not beauty merely as outward aesthetic (though there's no dearth of breathtaking visual composition), but beauty as an entire story told on a human face. As a fleet approaches in the distance, Kenneth Branagh's Commander Bolton turns his gaze to the horizon. In an unbroken take, one lasting ten, perhaps fifteen seconds, the vast IMAX camera creeps forward as Branagh steps forth to meet it, consumed by a growing dread. It could all be over in this moment. Dunkirk. Britain. And as he raises his binoculars to meet his fears head on, Smith refuses to cut away to show us what he sees. Instead we feel it, as his horrified lips break the slightest hint of a smile. He lowers the binoculars, and we see all that we could ever need to: the tears in his eyes as James D'Arcy asks him what approaches. We know the answer before he speaks it, even if we don't anticipate his choice of word.
The actual climax however, much like the rest of the film, is merely given the appearance of convergence. More importantly, it’s the given the feel.
This very same shot is subverted at a pivotal moment, when it seems like all is lost. As the dreaded German 109 fighter charges the Moonstone miles from shore, Rylance’s Dawson readies his son Peter to accelerate at just the right second. Simultaneously, we’re shown the steadfast Bolton closing his eyes atop the mole, accepting his fate as the fighter approaches, the haze of the setting sun obscuring his once clear countenance. Leading up to this moment, we’ve cut back and forth between exteriors of the beachside civilian fleet and interior shots of the Moonstone (sans orientation of its relation to the shore) so many times that they begin to exist in the same space, regardless of their actual distance. As soon as Dawson and his son escape enemy fire, the fighter is shot down by a returning Farrier, making one last trip ‘round the beach before he’s forced to touch down. Bolton gazes up in disbelief.
The cut between the yacht and the mole is smooth and immediate. Dodging the fighter and shooting it down feel like a single motion within a single scene, despite occurring minutes and miles apart. The fates of all the characters we’ve been following, decided in the exact same instant.
In essence, Nolan has continued on his trajectory towards using non-linear timelines as he sees fit, while foregoing the very need for them to line-up exactly so long as the experience is emotionally sound. It’s a swing in the opposite direction compared to works like Interstellar (2014), where the relative passage of time – a few minutes for Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, a few decades for his daughter, resulting in another impeccable unbroken close-up – is overcome by transcending time itself, placing Cooper in an in-between reality where, once again, he floats as time loses meaning. But where the climax in Interstellar involves transcending time as a construct, bringing Cooper back full-circle to the moment he left and putting a neat bow on the narrative, Dunkirk transcends the need for linear time altogether, forgoing the boundaries of the construct. He mashes two entirely separate occurrences into a single scene for the film’s climax, and continues to contract and expand their time long after the stories have converged. Farrier’s wheels touch down on the beach mere minutes after his triumph, but as the other characters have already spent entire days ashore.
For my fellow completists, The Dark Knight Rises plays with compression of timelines similarly to Batman Begins, balancing large action set-pieces with condensed montage as Gotham descends into chaos – a precursor to Dunkirk's own controlled chaos. And yes, The Dark Knight’s wholly linear timeline is relevant too. Its seamless transitions from day to night and back again make the exact time frame irrelevant by maintaining tension through action, the same way Dunkirk’s mole scenes don’t actually span an entire week. It’s about ten days for The Dark Knight, and about four for Dunkirk. About half an hour for the planes and only half a day for the yacht, but it doesn’t really matter. The time-frame title cards, each preceded by "One," are relative to one another. There’s no need to keep exact count when you’re that emotionally invested; as much as time is a vital dimension to Nolan, it's still entirely a narrative construct.
Of course, all manipulated seconds through expert editing are nothing without emotional undercurrent. The transcendence of time is vital here, but it acts in service to the transcendence of tribalism, and all the difficult decisions that either lighten or weigh down the soul. Dunkirk may be a mile-a-minute war thriller, but it’s one of the most thematically rich works in Nolan’s entire filmography.
The film is shockingly light on dialogue (I’m not even sure most characters are mentioned by name; I had to look up who Whitehead and Styles were playing), but this allows for a striking focus on silent decisions that resonate throughout the narrative. The film’s core is set up mere minutes in, with Whitehead’s Tommy emerging on to Dunkirk beach after a near-death experience, as French soldiers treat the young Englishman as an inconvenience. Thousands of men stand in line to board boats that may never come. Tommy joins the very end of a queue from which he’s rejected. “It’s grenadiers, mate,” growls an older soldier, shooing him away. He was neither cutting in line, nor would he have taken anyone’s place, and even the Frenchmen at the front of the queue are denied their chance at British rescue. Right from the opening scene, we’re introduced to the film’s main antagonists.
The antagonists within the plot, those faced by all the soldiers, are the dire conditions (even the tides are given pre-determined structure, which they misinterpret as time continues to crawl) as well the approaching Nazi forces, who we never actually see and are never mentioned by name. The antagonist within the story, for individuals like Tommy, Gibson and Dawson, is also structure, i.e. the structures according to which armed forces and national allegiances are divided, forming the framework for the arc of the film. And soon, the meta-textual antagonist reveals itself to be a form of structure as well, with the filmmakers constantly fighting the forces of traditional narrative logical surrounding real events, in order to replace it with emotional alignment.
Nolan’s sense of dramatic irony is firmly in tact, as Bilge Ebiri points out in his stellar review for The Village Voice. Like the light at the end of the vertical in tunnel in The Dark Knight Rises, home being within view for the Dunkirk strandees makes their inertia all the more painful. That same irony now finds itself applied to the film’s connective tissue. The only character who crosses between the timelines before they converge is Cillian Murphy’s shivering soldier, who tells Alex to stay calm in the current. Alex challenges him to do the same once he’s been hit by a torpedo, which is the fate that eventually befalls him. In a more immediate sense, and at the start of the film, Tommy and Gibson attempt to board a ship out of Dunkirk before it departs, as Dawson, Peter and George attempt to depart for Dunkirk before the Navy comes aboard. Before we’re ever shown the full picture of the film’s scale and moral complexity, we’re already simultaneously rooting for two opposing outcomes.
The next time the cross-cutting is used to this effect, Collins’ plane has touched down in the water and he’s unable to escape it. Elsewhere (and elsewhen), Tommy, Alex and the Highlander regiment debate sending the Frenchman to die. The scenes are first connected when Tommy mentions the target practice taking place outside, but rather than cutting to show us what parts of the vessel are being aimed at, the very next thing we see is Collins’ sinking Spitfire, the target on its tail being engulfed by water. What exactly the Nazis are up to isn’t important, so our protagonists are never offered the narrative contrast that automatically positions them as heroes. This is not a film about the virtues of nation or ideology. If anything, it's an indictment.
What is important is whether or not Collins can smash his way out of his slowly sinking vessel, while Tommy and the rest scurry to plug up the holes in theirs. It isn’t just the mirroring of these actions that matter; Dawson and Peter, after having weighed George's life against all the lives on the beach, must debate pushing their ship’s failing engine on the off chance a single man is alive – Collins, a brave airman like Dawson's departed son – while Tommy is forced to reckon with the potential guilt of sending Gibson ashore. “I’ll live with it. But it’s wrong” is his unwitting conclusion. In order to stay alive, he and Alex decide to sacrifice the “Frog,” previously a "Jerry" with "an accent thicker than sauerkraut sauce," who saved them on two occasions (once by opening a locked door instead of abandoning ship, and once by throwing them a line as they were left afloat), before Alex decides Tommy could be thrown to the wolves as well. If you’ll recall, it was Tommy who first pulled Alex out of the water, and out of the way of being crushed by a ship. These simultaneous scenes are packed with simple goals and immediate action, but in either case, they involve characters weighing the cost of a single human life against others' and against their own, not to mention the potential impact it’ll have on them if they allow someone else to die.
The ultimate irony however, comes when the two stories converge. Once again, rather than abandoning ship, Gibson spends those vital few extra seconds to keep the ship’s holes plugged, allowing Alex and Tommy time to escape even once they'd branded him a lamb for slaughter. Alex uses Gibson's chosen name for the very first time, seeing him simply as human rather than a national caricature, and he even tries to get him to escape with the regiment. He can't. Collins, alive thanks to Dawson's split-second decision, finds himself on the wrong end of a similar predicament. He stares down a pair of drowning youths who are just out of reach of the Moonstone. What ought to be a simple act of heroism is muddied by oil in the water. As Farrier shoots down the screeching bomber, the channel itself is set ablaze. The situation spells doom for everyone aboard if they linger a second sooner.
Gibson drowns so his English comrades can live. Collins yells for the yacht to speed off, leaving the remaining men to burn.
It’s in these instances of silent decision; Collins aboard the yacht, Farrier as he runs out of fuel, and Gibson aboard a series of sinking ships, all glancing left and right as they weigh the cost of people before deciding to push forth, that the film finds its most incredible moments. Moments where, amidst the harrowing extended sequences of sinking and drowning, the beached boys and pilots and simple civilians are forced to discover who they are at their core, each a function of their timelines being the expanded and contracted to degrees that suit their circumstances. Moments of selfless heroism and of painful sacrifice, embodying the swirl that is Dunkirk’s through-line: there is no victory without loss, no survival without leaving something behind, and heroism is not so easily defined.
“Well done, lads,” bids John R. Nolan, the director’s kindly uncle who’s been showing up in his films ever since Following, handing out food to weary travelers.
“All we did is survive,” responds Styles’ Alex, the weight of his shameful actions against the selfless Frenchman hitting him like a brick.
And here, once again, enters Chris Nolan’s biggest stylistic flourish. Bigger than the IMAX frame, which he uses for both landscape sweeps and intimate changes in facial expression. Bigger than the rotating sets, which provide a sense of both epic scale and chaotic, disorienting dread. Bigger than the practical flying scenes, placing us inside cockpits and atop vibrating wing-spans, a third of this film’s runtime. Bigger than leaving hats behind to show us all that was sacrificed! Bigger than his use of overwhelming, enveloping sound to convey both momentary horror and sustained emotional intensity. And yes, arguably bigger than his signature manipulation of time:
The manipulation of truth.
Truth, like time, is relative in Nolan’s films, and its relativity is the core of the text. Moments after Alex departs, the blind volunteer places his hand on Tommy’s face in order to see him, and in order to welcome him home. Aboard the train, Tommy rests soundly and immediately, his soul having been freed from the weight of his failures. The ticking clock finally stops as he falls sleep. Alex on the other hand, holding back tears and having perceived the man as sighted, is disgusted with himself. “He wouldn't even look me in the eye.”
A passing soldier asks the airman Collins where he was during the rescue, unaware of the sacrifice he’d made.“They know where you were,” Dawson reminds him, gesturing to the men he rescued. Dawson’s son Peter, who angrily reminds Cillian Murphy of his accidental maiming of George, eventually tells him he’ll be alright even as his friend lays dead below deck. Murphy, the shell-shocked captain of a sunken vessel, has seen enough on this day. He doesn’t need another death on his conscience. The lie is more important, as is bending the truth to make sure George is remembered as a hero. It's another heightened Nolan ending that goes back in some form or another to his earliest films (Following’s horrifying discovery, Memento’s self-delusion for the sake of carrying on living), but an ending that has become a more specific stylistic staple ever since The Dark Knight.
At the end of his 2008 superhero game-changer, Nolan’s Batman manipulates the truth about Harvey’s actions to protect the soul of Gotham, just as Alfred burns Rachel’s letter to protect Batman. At the end of Inception, the relativity of truth takes center stage as Cobb walks away from his spinning totem, his guilt finally having been assuaged. He’s unconcerned with the factual nature of his reality now that it’s emotionally sound. These sequences, beginning with Batman riding off into the distance as Gordon gives his son a speech for the ages, feature cross-cut montages shot mostly in slow moving medium and medium-long shots, a fact I bring up because of how much they highlight each character’s relationship to the space and circumstance around them once they’ve been through their respective trials. But as Nolan has honed his technique with the IMAX camera, so too have he and Smith honed these intimate montages, making them feel massive in emotional scale.
In Interstellar, in The Dark Knight Rises and in Dunkirk, Nolan’s endings occupy the entirety of the 70mm frame. But rather than displaying size or scale, they’re filmed on long lenses and blur their backgrounds in order to focus on faces. They’re also brighter and more vibrant than anything in the films that precede them, and not without reason.
In Interstellar, we push into humanity’s new home and the face of the woman who founds it, finding new life even in death. Cooper re-discovers his own personal truth, stealing a plane and moving long past his pragmatic function within the story: he will never be satisfied unless he keeps looking forward, toward adventure and discovery. In The Dark Knight Rises, we find Bruce Wayne finally deciding to be happy. The apparent demise of Batman, the man (revealed to us as a ruse through a plane's auto-pilot!) makes way for Batman the symbol to truly come to life, with his protégé retracing his footsteps and rising to take on the mantle, shot triumphantly from the rear.
Tom Hardy’s Farrier gets the heroic rear shot this time around. His plane is set ablaze, the amber reflecting in his eyes as Nazis approach from the fields entirely out of focus. Peter takes George’s photograph to the paper, which hails him as a local hero. The boy’s final wish. Hoytema's township palette displays hues of warm browns and reds, leaving behind the dull rot of Dunkirk's ruins. And finally, Tommy and Alex trade the muted greys of the unforgiving beach for the lush green pastures of home.
Alex can’t bear to read the paper, can’t bear to look people in the eye, and can’t bear to accept the colossal military loss his country has faced. But this is not the kind of film where victory is a national statement. It’s the kind where, despite British resilience being the focus, British flags adorning rescue vessels are but window dressing to the true heroic symbols: the smiling faces that greet the soldiers, handing them beers, taking the world off Alex’s shoulders. An anonymous pilot going beyond the call of duty to save as many lives as he can. A boy remembering his friend the way he hoped to be remembered. The father of a fallen pilot reminding a living one that war isn’t about glory. A British Commander staying behind once his troops have been rescued so he can save the Frenchmen too.
And in its final moments, Dunkirk gives us what might be Christopher Nolan’s first truly open ending. His powerful final frames – Following’s Cobb disappearing in the crowd, Memento’s Leonard waking up to a new reality, the slew of Prestige tanks revealing the extent of sacrifice and obsession, The Dark Knight riding off in the distance, the slight wobble of Inception’s totem, the screen wiping to black as The Dark Knight Rises, the lights of a new Interstellar human colony in the distance, all before the screen smash-cuts to black as a definitive statement – they are all subverted here.
The final image we see is of Farrier’s burning plane, the remains of all that was lost and sacrificed en route to Dunkirk. The screen fades to a familiar black, but before the film finally ends, we’re given once last momentary glimpse at Tommy, having just finished reading Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech to the House of Commons. With no end to the war in sight, he looks up at a man no older than he, a man who moments earlier could not even face another human being, but a man whose truth had just been rewritten. By Churchill, by Tommy, and by a supportive people, but he looks at him with uncertainty. The burning wreckage may have been what was left behind, but the smiling face of Harry Styles just off screen, once utterly consumed by failure, now able to see the mere act of survival as victory, as he celebrates living, is what may lie ahead.
That’s the way it ought to be.