Courtesy Warner Bros.

War—What Is It Good For? In ‘Dunkirk,’ It’s Great for Overlapping Narratives

Christopher Nolan’s new flick is built of meticulously interlocking storylines.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is, undeniably, about the famed World War II evacuation. But it’s also very much about how Nolan makes movies, and how he wants us to watch them. Like other adventurous projects such as Memento and Inception, his new film is a weirdly structured but tantalizing jigsaw puzzle, its pieces assembled with the ingenuity of a maniacally complicated cuckoo clock. It’s not enough for Nolan that his three storylines unfold side by side—they must track along different time frames, too. The movie is like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, but focused on a single military event with characters who eventually overlap.

In 1940, Dunkirk was both a humiliating defeat for the Allied forces—the German army having routed the British and French to the sea—and an unlikely morale boost. The hundreds of thousands of soldiers stranded on the beach relied on a withdrawal “navy” partly made of countless small boats and ferries, many piloted by brave civilians crossing the English Channel. The story became the very model of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Nolan’s complicated method is announced immediately. One narrative strand is titled “The Mole,” named for the Dunkirk sea wall that served as the only docking point for large ships. That story takes a week to unfold. Here we meet the closest thing the movie has to a focal point, a soldier (Fionn Whitehead) who will try anything to latch onto a departing vessel. We also have the reassuring presence of a Navy commander played by Kenneth Branagh, whose performance consists almost entirely of standing on the pier and staring determinedly at the sea. Branagh does this stirringly.

The second is “The Sea,” a day-long push across the Channel in one private boat. Its plucky owner, nimbly played by the masterly Mark Rylance, takes his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young pal (Barry Keoghan) on the voyage. They pick up a shell-shocked survivor (Cillian Murphy) and steer toward France. The third strand is “The Air,” which takes place over a single hour and rides along with two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) as they attempt to provide air cover for the retreat. This section, a series of air battles, wouldn’t stand on its own; it seems to exist as an excuse for IMAX-sized you-are-there views of dogfights above the Channel. Reviewers who’ve seen the film in IMAX (it wasn’t at the press screening I attended) have raved about the effect. Nolan allows Hans Zimmer’s inventive score and Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech to provide the finishing touches.

For all the state-of-the-art technology and tricky structure, Nolan is basically flexing one of the oldest movie axioms: When you cut between two escalating situations—for instance, people trying to escape a burning house as firefighters across town scramble toward it—you build suspense. He proves the point repeatedly in Dunkirk, making the pulse pound even with three escalating situations and even when our brains tell us the events aren’t actually happening at the same time. Given the complicated time-shifting, when the storylines do finally coincide, it’s a thrill—although it’s possible you’re more impressed with the filmmaker’s bravado than with anything the characters are doing onscreen.

Those characters are stock types caught up in the large sweep of events. Nolan is so sparing with dialogue and backstories that I found myself wondering whether he cast three escaping soldiers with nearly indistinguishable actors precisely because he wanted them to remain anonymous (newcomer Whitehead is joined by Aneurin Barnard and One Direction star Harry Styles). The whole apparatus is impressive, if sometimes hollow. Why do it this way? Does the time gimmick say something about how people experience trauma in different ways, or about how certain events are fated to intersect? I’m skeptical. Maybe Nolan simply wants us to see the war film differently. On that level, mission certainly accomplished. Dunkirk, Rated PG-13. Opens Thurs., July 20 at various theaters.

film@seattleweekly.com

More in Film

Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, and director Marc Turtletaub put together the pieces on the set of Puzzle. 
Photo by Linda Kallerus/Sony Pictures Classics
Can ‘Puzzle’ Fit in the New Oscars Landscape?

The understated indie boasts a fabulous performance by Kelly Macdonald, but does that matter in the Best Popular Film era?

Teens bond at a gay conversion camp in The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Photo courtesy Beachside Films
The Conversion Immersion of ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’

A strong young ensemble helps director Desiree Akhavan artfully takedown conversion therapy.

The ostentatious takes center stage in Generation Wealth. Photo by Lauren Greenfield
Show Me the Money

The documentary ‘Generation Wealth’ attempts to show greed’s shallowness, but somewhat loses focus.

Tom Cruise hangs onto his action hero bonafides with ‘Mission: Impossible — Fallout.’ Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures/Skydance
Impossibly Not Getting Old

Tom Cruise and his action franchise remain sharp in ‘Mission: Impossible — Fallout.’

Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill lead a hefty cast in <em></em><em>Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot</em>. Photo by Scott Patrick Green/Amazon Studios
Steady Footing

Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill anchor ‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,’ Gus Van Sant’s biopic about a quadriplegic cartoonist.

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) stays glued to her screens in ‘Eighth Grade.’ Photo by Linda Kallerus/A24
Embracing the Naturalistic Awkwardness of ‘Eighth Grade’

Writer/director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher discuss making and living one of the year’s best films.

Golden Goal

On the Seventh Day takes an atypical sports movie approach while addressing immigrant issues.

‘The King’ explores the idea of Elvis as a symbol of America. Photo courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories
‘The King’ of the U.S.A.

A new documentary on Elvis Presley tries to make the rock icon the embodiment of America.

Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), live outside of society 
in Leave No Trace. Image courtesy SIFF
Off the Grid

‘Leave No Trace’ weaves a poignant tale about a father running from society and a daughter who yearns for it.

Dino-Might

While peppier than its predecessor, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom still feels very calculated.

Image courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
‘2001’ in 2018

As Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece returns to theaters for its 50th anniversary, have moviegoers betrayed its legacy?

Through their partnership with Dandelion Africa, Extend the Day supplied solar lights to 9,000 children in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Extend the Day
‘Into the Light’ Cuts Through the Darkness

A documentary about local non-profit Extend the Day shows what it’s like for over 1.2 billion people throughout the world who lack electricity.