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

‘Roma’ projects to be the big winner at the 91st Academy Awards this Sunday. Photo by Carlos Somonte
And The Winner Is: 2019 Oscars Preditions

Who will take home the awards on cinema’s biggest night?

Mads Mikkelsen stars in Seattle’s current weather… I mean, ‘Arctic.’ Photo by Helen Sloan/Bleecker Street
Mads Mikkelsen Delivers a Tour de Force in ‘Arctic’

The near-silent performance makes this survival film transcend the genre.

The upbeat everyman Emmet remains cheerful even in post-apocalyptic settings. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Everything’s Still Awesome

‘The Lego Movie 2’ builds on the success of the original with more humorous pop culture-drenched adventure.

In a fairer world, little film like ‘The Rider’ would have a chance at Oscars gold. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Who We Would’ve Nominated For 2019 Academy Awards

Narrow defintions of “Oscar worthy films” and Hollywood politics shut out some of the year’s best. Let’s change that.

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly take the stage as Laurel and Hardy. 
Photo by Nick Wall/Sony Pictures Classics
‘Stan & Ollie’ and the Art of Playing Comedic Geniuses

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly carry the story of legendary duo Laurel and Hardy.

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig simmer as musicians in love in <em>Cold</em> <em>War</em>. Photo by Lukasz Bak
The Warm Musical Romance of ‘Cold War’

The gorgeous Polish tale of love behind the Iron Curtain would be a layup for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in a non-‘Roma’ year.

KiKi Layne (Tish) and Stephan James (Fonny) star in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’ Photo by Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures
Meandering Along ‘Beale Street’

Barry Jenkins follows up ‘Moonlight’ with the textured racial mood piece, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’

Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson square off in ‘Aquaman.’ Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
‘Aquaman’ Can’t Figure Out Which Wave to Surf

The latest DC Comic movie struggles to find a balance between keeping a straight face and having fun.

Emily Blunt takes on the role of the magical nanny in Mary Poppins Returns. 
Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios
‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Boasts Nostalgic Musical Charm

The first soundtrack album I ever knew deeply was Mary Poppins, and… Continue reading

Spider-Folks from various dimensions come together in ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.’ Image courtesy Columbia Pictures/Sony
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Gets Caught in Its Own Web

The animated comic book gets stuck up on its multiverse fan service.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone battle for the queen’s attention in <em>The Favourite</em>. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Twentieth Century Fox
Black Comedy with a Regal Veneer

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz bring catty rivalry to the queen’s court in ‘The Favourite.’

Yalitza Aparicio (left) makes her feature debut as Cleo, the central character in <em>Roma</em>. Photo by Carlos Somonte
‘Roma’ Makes an Epic Film Out of an Intimate Story

Alfonso Cuarón’s memories and vision guide the Spanish-language Oscar front-runner about a young housekeeper in 1970s Mexico.