Nolan loves to play with time and how we view events through it. Nolan hardly ever writes a linear story, he prefers his films to jump around through time, going back and forth between different periods within a story. The film where he did this to probably its greatest effect was his breakout film, Memento. Memento is a staggeringly good film, and the way it plays with time is probably the only instance of that particular method I’ve ever seen in film actually work on a level that truly delivers every step of the way.
Memento being hailed as one of the greatest films of the 2000s probably soiled the rest of Nolan’s creative work though. Because it’s evident that he feels like that playing with time in a story is one thing he’s very good at and so now he milks that skill for all its worth. Among his blockbusters, only the Batman films tell a linear story throughout their runtimes, though I strongly feel that if Nolan didn’t feel like he needed to tell a Batman story in an easy to understand order, he would have told the Batman films like all his other films. From The Prestige to Inception to Dunkirk, Nolan has consistently played with time in his stories, and at this point, the trick is fast becoming stale. Dunkirk hangs its whole success on the gimmick of time, and as a result, it becomes a very predictable film (Nolan doesn’t even bother hiding the end by the 40 minute mark) and a pretty weak war film because it opts to play with its own gimmicks than tell a compelling war story.
Dunkirk plays out three different stories woven together. The first story is about soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk and how they work to escape certain death by attempting stow away on board one of the ships getting the hell out of dodge. This story takes place over the course of a week. The second story in the movie focuses on a trio of civilians who take their boat across the channel along with a whole fleet of civilian boats commandeered by the British navy to rescue the stranded troops on Dunkirk beach. This story plays out in only the course of a day. The final story follows a single pilot of a RAF fighter plane and a single hour of his fight as he provides support for the men trapped at Dunkirk. Nolan jumps from timeline to timeline indiscriminately, the stories merged all together. He uses the same trick as in Inception where the audience hears the slow ticks of a clock as time passes to signal the audience where in the timeline they are. At the beginning, during the week long story you’ll hear a tick every few minutes, whereas when you’re in scenes with the fighter pilot the ticking is real time every second. This means as the film progresses and the timelines starts to converge on each other, the ticking slowly picks up faster and faster until they all converge and the ticking is fast and frenetic as the movie hits its climax.
That’s the real gimmick of Dunkirk put simply, waiting for all the timelines to converge on each other. There’s a small problem though. Only about forty minutes into an hour and forty minute movie, Nolan converges the story of pilot and civilian ship and gives you a glimpse of what’s going to happen to the men you’re following on the beach. This basically spoils the whole climax of the film since by that point all you’re doing is watching the action from ground level and not up in the air. You’ve already seen what happens during the climax. I’m not sure if Nolan was just attempting to subtly foreshadow what would happen at the end, but by doing so, the middle part of the film drags because there’s no tension in what’s happening. You’ve seen where the film is going, so there’s no concern for the soldiers running around from boat to beach to boat in the first story because you know they’re going to get to the point where they’re in view of the civilian ship of the second story who will be in line with the pilot’s story.
The plot pretty much doesn’t hold itself up because there’s too many windows into where the story goes. Now, most films would recognize this and opt hard to develop strong characters the audience is going to be invested in, but Nolan doesn’t do this. There’s barely any lines of dialogue through the whole film. Nolan might have been trying for a Mad Max: Fury Road angle with this (which I only guess because Tom Hardy is here too), but we’re given so little of our characters it’s incredibly difficult to care about them when they’re killed off for the sake of “war movie.” In fact, I felt so little for the soldiers who completely ditched their duties in mad attempts to save themselves, I was hoping they’d meet some sort of justified punishment for abandoning the men who remained stalwart by the end of it. Hardy gives even less lines in this than in Mad Max and with his face covered for all of them, he’s even less intelligible than he was when he played Bane and since he’s stuck inside a plane, all we get of his acting ability is how concerned he can make his eyes look as he figures out what to do as his plane gets shot at.
The civilians get the most development, and don’t expect much there. We have an elderly gentleman and his son, along with their teenage hand carrying the brunt of the emotional weight of a “war film” and you have exactly three guesses as to how Nolan uses one of the characters to force an emotional point in a film that should be brimming with emotional points as it is, again, A WAR MOVIE. Imagine if instead of following Tom Hanks and his crew through Saving Private Ryan and developing a bond with the characters so by the time we reach the end we genuinely care about what happens to them, the story instead opted to do a back and forth jumping from Tom Hanks, to Matt Damon, telling their stories back and forth until they converged on each other? Do you think the film would still carry the same emotional weight if it was forced to devote half its running time to Matt Damon running around? My guess is no, because Dunkirk attempts this idea, and falls flat in telling a compelling war story. It focuses so much on its gimmick that it loses the ability to tell a strong story, which is essential to making a good and memorable war film.
Now does the film have any strengths? Yeah, it’s a visual treat. Nolan’s signature camera tricks are all present, and he plays with gravity and camera angles constantly when filming boats sinking. The effect is very good, and looks great on screen. Nolan does a great job of making explosions from bomb mortars not the focus of the camera, instead opting to make them appear as rapidly closing threats as soldiers huddle in fear in center frame. Every gunshot startles you as heavily as the soldiers being shot at as they scramble for cover. There’s a great ability to drop the audience into an active war zone on display here. Most of the film doesn’t use conventional angles and shots, so the audience never really feels like they’re watching a typical war movie. It’s a very good effect and I feel the cinematography alone is what is convincing people that Dunkirk is an amazing film.
But at the end of day, Dunkirk is typical Nolan fare at this point. If you’ve watched his filmography, you’ve come to expect what Nolan is going to bring to his movies, and their dazzle isn’t very strong after seeing the same tricks used over and over. At this point, I want Nolan to take his bag of tricks and use them with a compelling story, not write a story that relies on gimmicks to carry the whole damn thing. It’s infuriating because it’s obvious Nolan is trying to recreate Memento over and over, using the same gimmick in slightly different ways and riding the success because general audiences have been enthralled by his nonlinearity. But instead of taking his gimmick to the next level, Nolan hangs out where it's safe and peddles his wares to an audience that gobbles it up. Nolan is easily capable of writing a film like The Handmaiden, directed by Park Chan-wook, which plays with time and linearity to great effect, but also tells a compelling character story and doesn’t rely on the strength of its gimmick alone. But Nolan doesn’t take his craft to a level that might require audiences to pay attention for the entire duration to really understand what’s happening. And it’s a shame, because I would love to see the Nolan signatures used in films like that.