Writer-director Christopher Nolan has created some of the most memorable cinematic moments: the effect of the near-permanent daylight on a LA detective in Insomnia; the slippage of time between places created by a wormhole in Interstellar; the three-action-sequences-at-once in Inception; and the backwards in time unwinding of the plot of Memento. What these all have in common is a concern with time and how it functions—through the duration of a film, on the characters, and on the audience.
Though I have come to think of Nolan’s films as having great ideas, if not always satisfactory stories (the love conquers time as central to the plot of Interstellar, for example, felt like a let down), I was still eager to see Dunkirk. That the film’s running time was an hour less than Interstellar also helped.
Dunkirk is also that plays with time, though it isn’t as contrived as say Inception or Interstellar, which requires sci-fi mechanisms to make the time-play work. Instead, Dunkirk’s use of time is pretty straightforward, perhaps because it recounts an actual event: the rescue of more than 300,000 British troops from the beach of Dunkirk, France, at the end of May and beginning of June in 1940 as German troops surrounded them and German planes strafed and dive-bombed them. The waters near the beach were too shallow for large ships to get close, so the rescue included thousands of civilian pleasure boats and fishing boats. We get to experience this moment from three points of view/points of time: a young British solider (played by a young, blank-faced Fionn Whitehead in a nearly silent role) on the ground over the course of a week; a civilian boat piloted by a father (played by the great Mark Rylance), son and the son’s friend, heads from Dorset across the English Channel to Dunkirk, over the course of a day; and three Spitfire fighter planes (one piloted by Tom Hardy) travel from Britain to Dunkirk to fight German planes over the course of an hour.
I have long been fascinated by how time plays out—the psychological reality of how characters exist within a now of a narrative in which their actions and reactions and shaped by both past experiences and expectations and dreams for the future. We go forward chronologically carrying the weight of the past and the future with us. In some ways, the movie makes real this always already triple time line we all live in all the time.
The movie alternates viewpoints from land, to sea, to air, with some moments seen from different points of view. This, however, never takes away from the sense of urgency, momentum, tension, and suspense. We know the overall goal is to get the troops off the beach, and yet each point of view has intense moments of struggle along the way: the young soldier on the beach helping to carry a stretcher with a wounded soldier onto a ship before it disembarks and, making it at the last minute, is forced ordered off the ship (which is then bombed by a German plan and sinks); the civilian boat picks up a soldier, the lone survivor on an overturned hull of a ship, only to discover that the shell-shocked soldier desperately doesn’t want to go back to Dunkirk; and the Spitfire planes engage in dogfights with plans harassing British ships long before they reach Dunkirk. It is a masterfully constructed movie.
What happens to the one soldier on land, who narrowly escapes one event after another, stretches credulity. The film begins with him hurrying through a town to the beach, and every other soldier he is with is gunned down by unseen Germans. After that, he seems to be a Zelig-like character who finds himself in one deadly scrape after another. Could this have happened? Sure. Each moment is so intense, though, and so well depicted, the character seems more like a superhero, which isn’t quite the right thing for this movie. Nonetheless, the film is still a gripping and powerful ride.
Dunkirk has been nominated for eight Oscars (Best Picture, Directing, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design). The movie has a good chance of winning in some of the technical categories, but considering that the Directors Guild Award went to Guillermo del Toro for “The Shape of Water,” not sure if it will win the big awards.