Dunkirk and the Sensations of Time

From the moment I dropped into Dunkirk, I was unsettled. With no leading characters to guide me, no relationships to count on, I was, like the British at Dunkirk, stranded, looking across the sea at what I’ve come to expect from a war movie without any hope of ever getting there. Such is the allure of Dunkirk. More documentary than story. More art than film.

What the film sacrifices in character and narrative it makes up for in feeling. Dunkirk is a feat of the senses. Visually, the 70mm format acts as blinders, cutting off the peripherals from the familiar widescreen format and keeping viewers focused on exactly what Nolan wants them to see: the action. The result is inescapably engaging. There is no time or space to look around the screen, even in IMAX.

Audibly, the film is even more constraining. Remember the scene in The Dark Night when the joker is riding in the back of a cop car, his head, hair and tongue dangling out of the window like a dog? In that scene, the street’s ambient noise fades away to an eerie Hans Zimmer score that seemingly freezes time, creating a temporarily heightened moment. The entirety of Dunkirk exists in that heightened moment. Hans Zimmer’s score builds and builds until the lights come on, unrelentingly using an audio trick known as the Shepard’s tone. The Shepard’s Tone, which appears in all of Nolan’s movies, is a phenomenon using three audio layers playing in a loop to create the illusion of a constantly rising scale. Think of it as the cinematic equivalent to house music’s buildup before “the drop,” except the drop never comes.

This soup of the sensations comes bubbling up through the films three pseudo narratives: the land, sea and air, which take place over one week, one day and one hour respectively: evidently another one of Nolan’s explorations with time. While these narratives do expectedly converge in the end, what’s more interesting are his comments on how the speed of time differs in each location.

Over the week on land, time truncated by german aerial attacks and although the action never stops (someone is at all times, running, shooting, swimming or screaming), seconds move by painfully slow. The men stranded on land tell time with the tides. Each passing moment is a moment survived, the ultimate achievement in Dunkirk.

Time glides along a little faster on sea, as we follow a civilian boat’s journey across the channel from England to Dunkirk. But the sea presents its own perils, which is how the boat’s small crew measure its time: The time it takes for a ship or a plane to sink. The boat, though crossing a wide channel, is always battling time to save someone, though it eventually becomes stranded in its own way, with a little help from Cillian Murphy.

As any pilot would attest to, time moves slowest in the air, where it is measured by fuel percentages. Tom Hardy’s fuel gauge breaks early in the film, forcing him to measure time according to his wingman’s readings and create his own hourglass in the form of timestamps and percentages scribbled on his dashboard in white chalk. Stranded in a hunk of metal with low fuel and a sky full of bandits, Hardy’s hour in the air stretches the length of the film, making him perhaps one of the most productive men in history.

But Nolan has slyly built one more narrative into the film, using it to make his biggest comment on time: the viewers. With a runtime of 1:45, the film may seem short on the onset, but any longer and the audience would burst through the screen to free the British themselves.