Christopher Nolan seems to be taken with Andrei Tarkovsky’s famous dictum that a film is “a mosaic made of time.” In every film Nolan has made except for his second two Batman films, the reorganization or manipulation of time has been a key component of each film’s narrative. In Nolan’s films, events fold over on top of each other so that the present moment is intensified. The paramount moment in a Nolan film isn’t merely itself, it is every other moment in the narrative as well. Everything that happened before and everything that will ever happen after that most important moment is warped by that instant, so Nolan incorporates narrative devices – anterograde amnesia, perpetual daylight, doubles and illusion, dream logic, black holes – to warp his characters’ experience of and interaction with the world. The formal convention of editing allows him to create these “time stacks” with higher emotional fidelity than any other artistic medium allows, save ritual.*
Nolan’s science-fiction films naturally lend themselves to this sort of time manipulation. A war film, like his latest, Dunkirk, seems a strange place for this sort of thing to occur, yet Nolan finds a way. Dunkirk is, on one level, a straightforward recapitulation of the rescue of over three hundred thousand English troops off the shores of France by private, English fishing and pleasure vessels in the early days of World War II. The soldiers are trapped, small boats cross the English channel to pick them up, and they are protected by fighter pilots in the air. The events themselves are thrilling, and the heroism they required are inspiring, In capable hands, the strict facts alone would be enough to make for a fine film.
Nolan goes a step further. Rather than tell a linear story, he layers the actions of the players in the Dunkirk rescue on top of each other, and he delineates them by time. The events on the beach (“The Mole,” referring to the long, dock that enables large ships to dock at Dunkirk) take place over the course of a week. The events on a small yacht crossing the Channel to help save soldiers take place over the course of a day. The events in the air with a squadron of fighter pilots dogfighting with German planes take place over the course of an hour. All three of these story lines are edited together as if they are taking place concurrently. The do intersect eventually—at the moment of rescue, of course—though it is uncertain until that moment how the stories will find each other. They must, because each actor in the drama is essential for the success of the greater mission.
Dunkirk draws everyone together, and beyond the constant threat of German bombs and bullets, the key antagonists in the film are the various character qualities that would keep the players apart, qualities like cowardice, hopelessness, chauvinism, self-regard, and shame. One could wrap all those qualities under a single quality, perhaps – lack of vision. When characters are unable to perceive a reality outside themselves, to imagine a good end to their predicament, they revert to selfish behaviors. They have to see beyond the moment to the ways their actions ripple into the future in order to do what is required in the moment. Nolan’s time-layered narrative carries his characters and us, his audience, into the future, prompting us to reckon with what has come before and reach toward what could be if we have the courage to do what’s needed now. “I am English!” is the first line of the film. It’s a plea, and the film that follows is a similar appeal to save the present from our myopic visions clouded by fear. Dunkirk shows us the best of what “English” has been in the past. May we live up to that example in the future.
*In Christian worship, for example, the Communion ritual is a moment in which the participants are joined metaphysically with all those who have come before and all those who will come after them in time.