Christopher Nolan’s War on Time

Movies Features Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan’s War on Time

Dunkirk contains three storylines: “The Mole,” which takes place over a week and follows young British troops trying to get away from a Nazi-besieged Dunkirk; “The Sea,” a day in which a civilian man (Mark Rylance), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and the son’s friend (Barry Keoghan) take a boat out to fetch the stranded soldiers back to England; and “The Air,” one hour of British air force pilots engaging the German Stukas and bombers who are picking off both the soldiers on the beach and the boats that come for them.

These three storylines, though taking place over very different time frames, are given equal footing. From its dread-drenched beginning, through a whole lot of harrowing middle, to its resonant conclusion, Dunkirk constantly intercuts between these three fragments of time, vivid recreations of different accounts of the same epochal event brought together to combine, spin off each other and then unfurl. Memories meticulously preserved, but also lost.

Those who assert that the film might be stronger if it had adhered to a more linear approach underestimate what this film accomplishes with its overlapping temporal strata—they even fail to connect it to the context of Nolan’s oeuvre. The cutting back and forth in time heightens the sense of disorientation for which Dunkirk strives in its depiction of war, but it also highlights textual connections (we see Cillian Murphy’s “Shivering Soldier” in the PTSD climax of his arc in “The Sea,” and in the next scene—from “The Mole” timeline—we see his composure as a commanding officer pre-PTSD), creates foreshadowing without having to indulge clichéd foreshadowing cues and allows the film to steadily build for over an hour to an extended sequence of catharsis.

Dunkirk also grants perspective. We see a Stuka shot down; in the next moment we see that same Stuka flying on past a boat it has failed to hit, Rylance’s Mr. Dawson stating that the plane “has bigger fish to fry.” In miniature the film here mirrors the same effect that it has as a whole, spending its time on a defeat and retreat, but one where we the audience have the benefit of history to know how things turn out, and what the survival of the British army meant for World War II.

Yet Dunkirk immerses itself in that moment in time: those losses, the sacrifices made, that overwhelming uncertainty of what’s to come. It has perspective, but also respect for the dead and compassion for the past. It’s perhaps the most emotionally aware and honest of all of Christopher Nolan’s films—it is the wisest, while on the surface barely trying, for virtue of its minimal dialogue and scant exposition, which is a welcome change of pace not just from Nolan’s recent work but large-scale films in general. The ambivalence, the equal parts tragedy and triumph with which Dunkirk resounds, is not muted, but complete. And the non-linear weaving helps achieve this. Director Andrei Tarkovsky wrote a book about his philosophy towards filmmaking, calling it Sculpting in Time; Nolan, on the other hand, doesn’t sculpt, he deconstructs. He uses filmmaking to tear time apart so he can put it back together as he wills.

A spiritual person, Tarkovsky’s films were an expression of poetic transcendence. For Nolan, a rationalist, he wants to cheat time, cheat death. His films often avoid dealing with death head-on, though they certainly depict it. What Nolan is able to convey in a more potent fashion is the weight of time and how ephemeral and weak our grasp on existence. Time is constantly running out in Nolan’s films; a ticking clock is a recurring motif for him, one that long-time collaborator Hans Zimmer aurally literalized in the scores for Interstellar and Dunkirk. Nolan revolts against temporal reality, and film is his weapon, his tool, the paradox stairs or mirror-upon-mirror of Inception. He devises and engineers filmic structures that emphasize time’s crunch while also providing a means of escape.

In Memento and Inception, Nolan and his brother Jonathan wrote narratives that enabled these structures. For Memento, the protagonist can’t create new memories, and the reverse order chronology of the scenes helps immerse the viewer in a simulation of that experience. At the end of the film, the beginning of its story, Guy Pearce’s Leonard states, “We all need memories to remind us of who we are—I’m no different,” and it’s heartbreaking because you know what is going to happen, something his character will know only for a moment, and then lose forever.

In Inception different layers exist within the dream world, and the deeper one goes into the subconscious the more stretched out one’s mental experience of time. If one could just go deep enough, they could live a virtual eternity in their mind’s own bottomless pit. “To sleep perchance to dream”: the closest Nolan has ever gotten to touching an afterlife.

In The Prestige two competing magicians try to outdo each other, but are really trying to achieve a brand of immortality. They are competing for the same audience’s faith, and they need all of it, because it is not something that can be shared (many religious institutions hold similar dogma for similar reasons). Each wants to invoke utter and absolute belief in their audiences, much like Nolan wants to do in his own, as if that achievement grants the doer divinity, whether or not it is built on tricks and illusions. Nolan begins the film with a trick, in fact, a shot of top hats littering the forest floor, with the voice-over asking, “Are you watching closely?” It is a shot out of time and place from the rest of the film, Nolan once again doing as he pleases, manipulating our perception of what we’re seeing and when so as to emulate the pledge, turn and prestige of the “magic” acts the film portrays. Our faith is built on lies we tell ourselves and others, Nolan seems to posit, and it’s a thesis on which he elaborates with his Dark Knight trilogy, insinuating that symbols are sacred not for their truth, but simply for what they inspire.

This line of thought turns speculative in Interstellar. Here again the weight of time is felt, and how it can bend and warp—just how relative time can be. Minutes on a planet close to a black hole equal far more than that back on Earth, and we see enormous prices paid by characters trying to push past what would seem to be humanity’s expiration date. Nolan finds hope in the idea that evolution knows no bounds, that we can one day exist outside of time and space: that we and indeed the very universe itself are part of a self-fulfilling loop, with love a driving force in the actualization of that loop. The film is a conflicted but compelling and often beautiful work, if it happens to get unwieldy when feeling the need to explain itself.

Dunkirk feels no such need. It is, almost without question, Nolan’s most mature and assured film. It believes in itself the way Nolan wanted audiences to believe in his tricks back when he was making The Prestige so he could then show his hand to undo the illusion and whatever other illusions we might hold. But in Dunkirk there’s no trick, there is only experience. There is only the cold chills that run down your spine when everything converges, when you see the German bomber coming back to finish off survivors, and here in this one moment all the timelines meet, Nolan honing in on not a twist, not a concept, but a feeling.

In Following, three acts are spliced up and the pieces shuffled—it is perhaps the one time prior to Dunkirk that Nolan’s non-linear approach is motivated more by thematic concerns than plotting. In Dunkirk the non-linear is not just thematic but aesthetic, visceral. It hits you deep, and it’s difficult to explain exactly why. The movie doesn’t try to explain it, either. It just shows you. It moves you, through pure force of cinematic power, Nolan and all his key collaborators (composer Hans Zimmer, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, editor Lee Smith) in that Watch the Throne zone, their master-strokes free to coordinate into the same concerted movements. Dunkirk believes in what it’s doing with absolute and utter belief, so you believe, too. It’s true magic. The movie peaks and then the engine goes out; you glide with the inertia just like pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy), alone in your dusky hour, outside the rest of time.

The name “Christ” is sworn a few times in Dunkirk. The placement is telling. The context is curse, but the feeling is a memory, tapping into our subconsciouses, where eternal dreams dwell. “Christ!” exclaims the dock attendant. “How many you got in there?” Speaking of rescued soldiers, speaking to Mr. Dawson, who risked his life and his son’s, to pull those broken men out of water about to burst in flame. The opening title cards speak tersely of how the soldiers were driven to the shore to wait for “deliverance,” for “a miracle.”

Dunkirk marks a return of Nolan to the existentialism of his earlier films like Following and Memento while acknowledging the power of symbols and beliefs to define the course of time. And though survival is the impetus for many of the actions in the film, love and sacrifice sometimes transcend the survival instinct too. And it’s precisely in these moments that time most bends to the will of the film, of what it wants to do, and what it wants you to feel.

In Dunkirk Nolan finally conquers time. He finds his ideal and he finds his art’s perfect communication of that ideal. By bringing his deconstructive approach to a historic event, to tear it apart and rebuild it, make it new, he creates in us expectation and solemn epiphany: No matter what, no matter the suffering, no matter the defeats, hope can always exist, and we never need surrender. Dunkirk is a film that—through its perspective—is about the truth of righteous belief and the necessity of dutiful action.

As Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy mumbles his way through reading in a paper Churchill’s famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech, time breaks down into image: bodies, helmets on the forsaken Dunkirk sand, Farrier landing his plane then lighting it aflame before the Nazis close in, the conclusion of his hour now having been left far behind by the end of the week of “The Mole.” The picture becomes elemental, the three timelines of earth, sea and air now resolving in fire. It’s poetry you wouldn’t have known Nolan had in him, while Zimmer’s score extrapolates poignantly from Elgar’s “Nimrod.” Tommy mutters, “…until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

“God’s good time” as Farrier’s plane burns on into the deepening night. The film ends on one brief shot, Tommy looking up from the paper. The future is dark and obscure in his eyes. Much as it is in our own. But the past is lit by the fires of those who ensure the future. And, as Dunkirk attests, history will never finish being written. Much like Jacob wrestling with God, in order to defeat time Christopher Nolan had to find his way of honoring it. Dunkirk is his greatest victory yet.

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