How Dunkirk Inverts Classic WW2 Movie Moments

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk may look like a straightforward war movie, but it’s anything but.

Dunkirk
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

This Dunkirk article contains spoilers.

Christopher Nolan’s films have always been otherworldly, from dream heists to time travelling spy thrillers, to space adventures, to superhero trilogies. Even if he does a detective story, he does it backwards.

At first glance, Dunkirk seems a departure from this. No sci-fi, no time warps, no dreamscapes, Dunkirk looks like a straight up war film. But if you look a bit deeper, it’s clear that Dunkirk has much less in common with the likes of Saving Private Ryan and 1917.

From the beginning, you can recognize Nolan’s fingerprints. The color palette is immediately familiar to fans of Nolan’s other films, washed out, full of stony grays and faded blues and yellows. 

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There are lots of gruff, serious looking men who can’t express their emotions, adding gravitas even to the simple act of trying to take a poo outdoors, all played by people you recognize from other Nolan films.

And of course, it sounds like a Nolan film. Short, clipped dialogue, the score is eerie and alienating, when there is any score at all, and there’s plenty of use of complete silence.

But even beyond the surface aesthetics, there are echoes of Nolan’s other work throughout Dunkirk. Perhaps that’s no accident. Nolan originally conceived of making a film about Dunkirk in the mid-nineties, but put off making it until he felt he was ready.

“It took me a long time to be ready to make this film just as a craftsman,” he said in an interview with the Directors Guild of America. “I didn’t want to take it on until I had a lot of experience directing large-scale action with the mechanics of the blockbuster under my belt.”

You can see how every other film Nolan has made could have been practice for this. From the opening chapter of the film, when one of our protagonists, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), reaches the beach, we see him run through domestic looking streets and gardens, dashing down a narrow alley that opens up onto the utterly dreamlike scene of Dunkirk itself. Wide open, white sands, soldiers in orderly lines, seemingly queuing to walk into the ocean, everyone apparently silent. It’s a scene that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in Inception.

By contract, the air-based strand of the film seldom gives us any wide, arching shots of planes heroically swooping through the air like X-wings. The camera is up close in Tom Hardy’s face, the view of the other planes frequently not much more than he can see himself from his cramped cockpit.

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The most grounded plotline follows Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his little boat as it crosses the channel. It seems disarmingly pedestrian compared to the other two threads of the film, but as it progresses, and the boat passes shipwrecks, retreating boats filled with soldiers and spitfires poking out of the water, it feels like they’re drifting further and further from reality, too.

A War Movie Backwards

But then there’s the real kicker. We have no way of knowing what cruel thing linear time did to Nolan in his youth, but the director has set out to take his vengeance with almost every film he’s made, and Dunkirk is no exception.

Dunkirk takes place across three plot strands. From the point of view of Tommy, on the beach, the film covers a week. From the point of view of Mr. Dawson, on the boat, it covers a day, while for Farrier, the pilot, the film almost happens in real time, with his storyline taking place over a single hour.

It’s almost straightforward, compared to Nolan’s other films such as Tenet (with the plotline running across two time streams, one of which is running backwards), Inception (every time you go down a level in the dream time moves a bit faster), Memento (the protagonist has amnesia so all the scenes are shown in reverse order) and Interstellar (Love is an extra dimension that lets you travel back in time? We need to watch it again but also, we don’t want to).

But it’s also more than sheer playfulness. The plot structure serves a purpose. First, from a practical level, it allows us to follow the story from the three most important perspectives — land, sea, and air — over the course of a single film. It simply wouldn’t have worked as well if Rylance’s character only showed up an hour into the film and Hardy only appeared in the last 10 minutes.

And it allows for some enlightening reveals. Seeing Cillian Murphy’s officer calmly leaving soldiers behind to fend for themselves after we’ve been introduced to the panicked mess that Rylance’s character pulls out of the water gives us a stark picture of how he’s changed far more than if we’d seen it the other way around. It also gives us the relief, when the boat pulls a downed pilot out of the water, of finally discovering what became of the plane Hardy’s character flew past earlier in the film.

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Most of all, however, the different time streams are about tension. Nolan is good at tension, it’s possibly what he’s best at on a scene-by-scene basis, and each strand of Dunkirk is about a different kind of tension.

Tommy’s tension, of being stranded on that beach for a week, continually scheming to get off and being foiled at every turn, is of an entirely different flavor to Mr. Dawson’s boat, sailing slowly into hell over the course of a day. That in turn is nothing like the high-wire tension of a pilot who, in his very first scene of the film, is told exactly how many minutes he can stay in the air, only to later find a broken fuel gauge means he has no idea how long he has left.

But despite Farrier’s sacrifice, Dunkirk is not really a traditional story of wartime heroism. Nolan has said that he was attracted to the story because it was an “inversion” of the Hollywood formula, and that certainly plays out in how the film is told.

Rather than taking an objective, or defending it, this is a story about running away. Our first protagonist is not a hero, but a deserter, trying to sneak and con his way back home ahead of the queue. The film’s most dramatic death isn’t a soldier going down in a hail of gunfire, it’s a kid in a tank top being accidentally pushed down some stairs by a traumatized soldier on his own side. The film doesn’t end triumphantly, it ends with foreshadowing of the even bigger struggles still to come.

I Am Become Death

Looking at how Dunkirk approaches a moment in history, it gives us some clues about Nolan’s next film. On the trail of another, stereotypically Nolan-like time-twisting thriller like Tenet, Nolan is once again returning to the wartime historical genre with Oppenheimer.

We don’t know much about Oppenheimer yet. It’s Nolan’s first film since Memento that won’t be coming out with Warner Bros, thanks to a falling out over the studio’s pandemic strategy. Its budget is set to be $100 million, half of Tenet’s budget and a few tens of millions less than any of his other recent efforts. And naturally, it stars Cillian Murphy.

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But the story of Oppenheimer, the father of the nuclear bomb, has plenty for Nolan to play with. The conflicted morals of the man who built the nuclear bomb, the perspective on the war from an unusual and perhaps less heroic angle than we’re used to, it’s not hard to see how this appeals to Nolan.

The Manhattan Project, with its secretly built towns filled with the wives and children of the scientists on the project, with its own schools and churches, feels like exactly the kind of hyper real setting that he would be interested in.

We look forward to seeing how he tells that story, and in what order.

Dunkirk is available to stream on Netflix now.