Tick Tock: The Genius Narrative Storytelling Of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’

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Originally published on Moviepilot.com on August 3rd, 2017

“Are you watching closely?” If you aren’t, you may miss the details, which are seemingly what writer/director Christopher Nolan obsesses over in his films. Nearly all of his screenplays use non-linear storytelling, with very few exceptions. I thought Dunkirk was going to be one of these exceptions, but Nolan utilizes his style once again to bring three different storylines to the big screen.

Some have criticized his decision to implement his typical style of non-linear storytelling in his latest film, but after viewing the movie for the second time, there appears to be great thought put behind the tightly woven structure. Dunkirk is, in part, defined by the non-linear storytelling and that makes it a stronger film. WARNING: Spoilers ahead for Dunkirk.

The Journey To The Big Screen

Christopher Nolan on the set of 'Dunkirk' [Credit: Warner Brothers]
Christopher Nolan on the set of ‘Dunkirk’ [Credit: Warner Brothers]

Christopher Nolan’s journey with Dunkirk started over 20 years ago when Nolan and his then-girlfriend Emma Thomas made a journey across the English Channel on a yacht to retrace the journey of the ships and soldiers during the evacuation of Dunkirk. Nolan then went on to pen a 75-page script with very little dialogue. Nolan put it aside because he felt he didn’t have enough experience in the blockbuster realm of filmmaking.

“It took me a long time to be ready to make this film just as a craftsman…I didn’t want to take it on until I had a lot of experience directing large-scale action with the mechanics of the blockbuster under my belt.”

Nolan knew there would be a challenge to unlocking the story of Dunkirk, and it would be difficult to cover the grounds necessary to encompass the whole event. He decided to write the script:

“In various geographies and time frames. The key was to immerse audiences in the experience of Dunkirk. It would take you there to the beach, put you on the boat crossing the Channel, put you in the cockpit of a [British] Spitfire fighter plane, and show the evacuation from different points of view, which add up to a relatively complete picture of the physicality and geography of the events.”

The Non-Linear Story Examined

'Dunkirk' [Credit: Warner Brothers]
‘Dunkirk’ [Credit: Warner Brothers]

Nolan used “a precise mathematical structure” to cover the three different storylines. Dunkirk’s non-linear narrative allows Nolan to tell the story’s different time frames and keep the movie’s forward momentum. Dunkirk would not have had the same effect had Nolan not elected to tell the story in three different time frames. Nolan explained to the Independent:

“To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure; Even if the story, once again, is very simple.”

Taking a linear approach would have made the air battles not take place until the third act and Mr. Dawson’s boat storyline wouldn’t have occurred until near the end of the second act. This would have been problematic for the movie’s pacing. Introducing key characters near the end of the movie would have ground the suspense to a halt and would have felt unnecessary to the rest of the film.

The entire movie is built upon a foundation of growing suspense and dread. This is personified with Hans Zimmer’s “tick-tock” score, designed to create feelings of intensity. Furthermore, the way the story is told is reflective of the event itself. The soldiers at Dunkirk never feel safe, and neither does the audience. The non-linear approach keeps the action and the story moving. Had Nolan taken the traditional approach, the movie would not have the same sort of feeling. Spending too much time in one setting robs the audience of key suspense-building moments. Nolan explains,

“We need this story to be about survival and suspense. What defines suspense is you can’t take your eyes off the screen. But what horror gives you is an aversion. You want to look away.”

The Snowball Effect

'Dunkirk' [Credit: Warner Brothers]
‘Dunkirk’ [Credit: Warner Brothers]

Nolan also wanted a “Snowball Effect.” A snowball effect is when a story starts off with something of small significance and grows to become something larger and potentially disastrous. The snowball effect of Dunkirk is the culmination of each storyline finally intersecting at the very end. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes it to Mr. Dawson’s (Mark Rylance) boat as Farrier (Tom Hardy) attempts to protect them from the air. All the major characters here have the potential to lose their lives. With each storyline established at the very beginning, it is rewarding to see all the characters come together in some way, almost like a victory for the audience.

The Criticism That Doesn’t Hold Up

Some film critics have criticized Nolan’s structure. Simon Foster of SCREEN-SPACE had this to say:

Surely the filmmaker’s insistence upon imposing his favourite device upon all his narratives is edging towards Shyamalan-like overkill (and the inevitable marketplace backlash).”

This criticism surely doesn’t work for a movie that requires this type of structure. Dunkirk is a different beast than most war movies. Unlike the events at Midway, Pearl Harbor and Battle for Britain (among others) that have a clear focus, Dunkirk doesn’t. Dunkirk unfolded over the course of over a week with very distinct points of view. Nolan attempted to capture the major ones — land, sea, and air.

Nolan had to write this film with a non-linear approach in order to make the story effective. The movie uses structure to great effect, keeping the suspense and pacing of the story moving while also being able to weave in and out of different viewpoints telling different sides of the event. Dunkirk is a perfect example of how to use non-linear storytelling effectively in a historical setting. Dunkirk’s storytelling is one of the film’s biggest triumphs.

What did you think about Dunkirk? Did you find Nolan’s narrative techniques effective, or distracting? Let us know in the comments!

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