As we come to Christopher Nolan’s 2017 war film Dunkirk, it’s fascinating to see how his relationship with time has changed over the course of his filmography. In the beginning, it was something to be manipulated to better illuminate identity and truth. But by the time you reach Interstellar and Dunkirk, time is the enemy. It can still be construed and dilated, but it also relentless and unforgiving. Dunkirk spans three timelines, but they all head to a singular point where triumph is not domination or beating back the enemy, but merely survival. Leaving behind the intersection of time and identity that he explored in his earlier films, Nolan uses time as an external force bearing down on his unnamed characters. They’ve all been forced into a single crucible where the best outcome is living to another day.
The decision to spread the narrative across three timeliness—The Mole covers one week, The Sea covers one day, and The Air covers one hour—not only helps with the pacing, but it also stresses the relentlessness and inevitability of the situation. The way time runs out in these stories mirrors the film’s bleak visual motif of drowning. Water slowly pours in, the room fills up, and then you either escape or you drown. Despite the stunning visuals, this is what minimalism looks like in a Nolan movie. He’s stripped away characters, intricate relationships, and exposition to get down the to the basics of survival.
Compared to the emotional sweep of Interstellar where love can literally span dimensions of space and time, Dunkirk is a purposefully hard-hearted affair. It’s not necessarily that the film is cold and distant as much as it’s unforgiving. The most “heroic” characters—Tom Hardy’s pilot Farrier or Mark Rylance’s sailor Mr. Dawson—are simply doing their duty. Yes, they’re risking their lives to help the soldiers stranded at Dunkirk, but they’re not flashy, charismatic people. One is Tom Hardy with his face almost entirely covered and the other is Mark Rylance. They’re playing people with a job they have to do, not swaggering heroes here to save the day.
This steely approach extends to the rest of the film as Nolan painfully kills off loads of faceless soldiers. The PG-13 makes these deaths a largely bloodless affair, but for a director who has explored the nature of lies, he strives to make war as unforgiving as possible. While a blood-soaked beach digs into our memory as the opening of Saving Private Ryan, the emotional detachment of Dunkirk works in Nolan’s favor because no one really wants to dwell on the horrors. The characters aren’t in the heat of battle, but rather their time is running out. They’re going to be cruelly and indifferently picked off from the sky by the enemy. From the opening scene of the movie, soldiers are gunned down by an unseen enemy and Tommy’s (Fionn Whitehead) escape amounts to little more than luck.
Luck and some situational awareness are the best you can hope for in the world of Dunkirk. Nolan excels at making his audience feel as helpless as his characters. The unrelenting enemy forces of the Axis Powers and the march of time constantly force everyone into the unglamorous and unheroic nature of survival. It’s only in the closing of the film that the nature of that survival gets called into question and returns to the power of comforting lies that has pervaded Nolan’s filmography.
Dunkirk is the most realistic movie Nolan has ever made. Even with its three timelines, there’s no trickery here or sci-fi premise to accept. But whereas other movies focus on lies that tell the truth or lies of self-destruction, Dunkirk is a truth that leads to a comforting lie. What we expect for large stretches of the film is the truth. Nolan gives himself that license by creating a narrative not based on any one particular story, but on the larger events of the Dunkirk evacuation. He doesn’t need to recreate a particular soldier who lived through the evacuation or a particular sailor who came to the rescue or a particular pilot who was flying overhead that day. Tommy, Mr. Dawson, and Farrier stand in for all the real people that were involved in this event. The people may not be based in fact, but the events, and more important, the experience of those events, are true to life (or as true to life as the PG-13 rating will allow).
What we get at the end of the film is that Tommy and Alex (Harry Styles) come home feeling like failures. They don’t understand why anyone would applaud them for simply surviving, especially given the inherent unfairness of survival at war. Their experience doesn’t match the narrative that’s greeting them. When Tommy reads Churchill’s famous speech about Dunkirk, he delivers it in a flat, disaffected tone. The words on the page lack their power because he’s not a part of the story being delivered to the masses. His survival and the survival of his fellow soldiers is spun into victory, even though the truth of that survival is far messier, indifferent, and chaotic than what people would like to believe.
Like we’re told in The Dark Knight, “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough,” and here the truth of Dunkirk, in all its harrowing detail, is simply too bleak. No one wants to hear a story about how survival is random and how people will resort to their crueler instincts when driven by fear even to the point where they’ll harm those trying to help them like when the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy) accidentally kills poor George (Barry Keoghan). The great British soldiers who survived turned on the Frenchman who saved their lives because survival isn’t fair. It’s not even particularly great, but in the midst of a disastrous military campaign, you need to rally the people. You need to lean into tales of heroism and argue that survival is enough no matter the cost. So the truth becomes a lie and men like Tommy can only continue on in a daze. The lies we tell ourselves create the illusion of fairness in an unfair world.
For our full retrospective series on the films of Christopher Nolan, click here.