As the familiar Syncopy marquee emerges on the screen, an unsaid wave of hush goes through the audience as they brace themselves mentally for the unveiling of Nolan’s first shot of Dunkirk. Their primitive instincts were well nigh justified as Hans Zimmer’s signature metronome fills the air with an invisible dread. Even before the narrative begins, your senses are heightened to capacity. As your eyes search the screen for any perceivable threat, you are already subliminally aligned with the character in that scene who is going through the exact same feeling of unrest. It is at this point that the first perspective is established through the eyes of a young foot soldier who is scrambling to get away from a barrage of bullets which wipe away his platoon in a matter of seconds. Through these precious few minutes which decided the destiny of that foot soldier, Nolan fervently hammers down the gravitas of time in the narrative.
Christopher Nolan is a chamberlain of the unsung deity that we often ignore with the notion that we have it in abundance. ‘Time’ is a conjugating factor in almost every one of his films, almost like a signature around which he designs the plot and writes the characters. From the non-linear screenplay in Memento to the subconscious perception of time in Inception, and to the relativistic time-dilation in Interstellar, each film is an exploration into the concept of this unbeknownst quantity which can exist homogeneously even with so many different ways to perceive it!
Dunkirk transports you into the midst of one of the greatest travesties to befall mankind. It is the early years of World War II when Britain and France are the only members of the Allied forces fighting Nazi Germany. Russia and United States would not join their forces until late 1941. About 400,000 British and French forces have been stranded on the small island of Dunkirk without food or water. A section of the landmass has been penetrated by German troops who have spread themselves through the small village like a virus, forcing the Allied troops to rally towards the only safe stretch of land that is the beach. Even though the harried soldiers do not face the usual barrage of bullets as they do within the village, the open stretch of land makes them an easy prey for German planes which sweep the area from time to time, wiping out entire platoons every single time their shadow falls on them. As Hitler’s armies ravage their homeland, Churchill hails the Navy Commandants to evacuate their soldiers who were needed at the forefront of the war in Britain and the whole of Europe. The task was easier said than done when there were thousands of soldiers stranded on the beach waiting to be picked up by the next ship and there was none to come, thanks to the German bombers which destroyed any that even tried to venture towards the godforsaken island.
With this unsettling and chaotic premise, three acts are quietly introduced into the narrative. Titled “The Mole | One week”, the first act shows us the face of war within Dunkirk through the eyes of a young foot-soldier Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead, whose fellow brothers are killed in machine gun fire. He, somehow, makes his way to the beach where he is met with the hundreds of soldiers waiting in a queue, hoping to be taken aboard the next ship. The lone pier known as The Mole teems with soldiers boarding a Navy ship while a few officers keep yelling at the desperate crowd that the ship had filled its capacity and no more could be accommodated. Due to the exasperatingly slow pace of the evacuation operation, the soldiers stand in constant fear knowing that they are sitting ducks for any German bomber that might come that way. From time to time, a thunderous drone is heard and a visible chill runs through the crowd as they cower and drop down to the ground helplessly. Interestingly, there are barely any shots of those actual planes in the first act as the camera stays focussed on capturing the sense of unadulterated fear on the faces of the soldiers as the explosions of the rattling guns close in on them.
The second act titled “The Sea | One day” takes you away from the heat of battle to a sleepy seaside town where a private boat-owner Mr. Dawson, played by Mark Rylance, is prepping up his boat The Moonstone with his teenage son Peter and his son’s friend George. They are one of the many volunteers who have come forward to assist the Navy in evacuating the soldiers trapped at Dunkirk and bringing them back to British soil. Mr. Dawson’s son, as we come to know, had been a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot and had been martyred in war. To honour his memory, he has made it his life’s purpose to bring back as many soldiers as they can. Even though Dunkirk is so close that it can be seen from their town, German bombers make it a suicide mission to even ply the boat in those waters much less rescue anyone. After the nerve-wracking first act, the second act portrays a very different side of war through the eyes of civilians who are living at the edge of battle. Even though you may not have been formally drafted, in times like these, every single effort can save lives and Mr. Dawson understands this well as shown in a scene where they go after an RAF plane which crashes into the channel, hoping against all hope that the pilot may still be alive and may still need them.
From the humble attempts through the sea, the perspective now shifts to the third act titled “The Air | One hour” where three RAF pilots are embroiled in a mid-air gunfight with German bombers whose sole mission is to destroy any Navy or private ships attempting to evacuate British/French soldiers from Dunkirk. The stakes in this equation are even higher than usual because of the huge number of soldiers stranded at the beach without any cover. Any bomb dropped with even a minuscule of accuracy would result in insurmountable casualties. The task is easier said than done as the skilled German pilots navigate in such a way that their onslaught is always from the direction of the sun, blinding the British pilots and making it almost impossible for them to see them coming. The viewpoint here completely rests on the pilot as his limited periphery of vision allows him to take stock of his enemy for a precious few seconds before he can take aim and shoot. Even in a free-flying plane, your abilities are restricted to the little that you can feel and hear. If an enemy plane, follows you from behind, all you can do is hope that you are not locked into the viewfinder of their machine gun.
At first, as the three acts present themselves to you, the unusual time durations associated with them leave you confused as to their importance. But by the time the second act is over, the meaning becomes apparent. Here, Nolan brings about one of his most commonly used elements into the screenplay wherein a sequence of seemingly separate events converges into a single moment finally revealing the correlation of those events. The first act, in my opinion, takes place through the course of one week as we are made aware of the unnerving plight of the Dunkirk soldiers through Tommy’s eyes. Nolan is almost notorious for the lack of any exposition in his films but it is important here for us to relish our discovery of this time-correlation. The events of the second act, as I understand, take place during the very last day of that week when, perhaps, the private boats would have been radioed to report at Dunkirk to support the evacuation. The third act takes place during the final hour of the fight when all the three time-frames converge into a single point. This is then we start recognising scenes from first and second acts, taking place in the third act from a completely different perspective.
Even in the time-correlation of these three acts, Nolan plays with perspectives once again. Just when we begin to realise the convergence of these time-frames, a new aspect presents itself in the relativistic meaning of time-duration. Besides positioning the three acts on a timeline, the three durations – One week, One day and One hour also present how the characters in each of the acts perceive time.
In the first act, Tommy has been struggling to survive within the village. Even after he reaches the beach where there is no gunfire, he still cannot escape Dunkirk. There are thousands waiting in line to board the ships. For these soldiers, time seems to have stopped. There is barely any help coming and at the same time, they also have to endure and somehow make it through the bombings. So – one week represents how slowly time seems to move for them.
In a similar manner, for Mr. Dawson and all the other private boats, the battle duration is being perceived through the duration of each day that they sail to Dunkirk and return every evening having rescued a few soldiers. For them, the sole purpose is to survive that one day. Once they are back to their town, the battle is out of sight. For them, it’s – one day that matters.
The pilots have to survive in a very different plane of existence. They manoeuvre fast machines where everything is measured down to the second. Even the most vicious of battles last no longer than a few minutes where the outcome is straightforward – you either shoot down the other plane or get shot down yourself. For them, the perception of time as a physical quantity is in short bursts. This fact is also reinforced into the third act when Tom Hardy’s fuel gauge malfunctions and he has to check with his fellow pilot as to how much is left in his tank. Assuming they must have had the same amount of fuel when they had started and that they had been in the air for roughly the same amount of time, whatever fuel the other man would have, would be the same quantity he would have. That’s, again, a simple time correlation through which even fuel is being measured.
War is not the only element which makes Dunkirk a hateful place in the viewer’s eyes. There is a certain subliminal characterization that adds to the menace about the place too. In various shots, you see a morbid foam-like substance which floats inland. In the distance, the smoke rising from the debris of downed ships and planes also seems to flow inland into Dunkirk as if it were a black-hole which engulfs everything in its firm grasp. In one of the scenes, two soldiers wait for the tide to come in so that their ships can get closer. One of them asks – “How do you know if the tide has come in?”, to which the other soldier replies – “It brings the bodies back.” Through this cold analogy, Dunkirk again projects an image of an island from where escape is impossible, almost like the cold atmosphere that we had felt in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island.
Adding to this uncomfortable scene is Hans Zimmer’s score which sears through your skin by its ticking time-bomb quality. The sound design is carefully crafted to make you feel the dread be it through the loud, screech of the bombers as they got closer, or through the un-dampened sound of the machine guns hitting bare metal. Nolan’s influence on sound-design is very much reminiscent of that of Interstellar for which there were comments that the sound of the gigantic dust-storms were kept too loud to hear any dialogue, to which he had promptly replied that, that had been intentional in order to give the audience a feel of a world where dust-storms are commonplace and it would be as difficult to understand each other if you had been there.
Dunkirk is not just another World War II film. There is no political premise that has been presented here. There are no elaborate battle scenes where armies slaughter each other. There are no emotional moments where soldiers express their unwavering patriotism towards their nation. In fact, there is hardly any dialogue in the film. Here, the story speaks through the vulnerability of soldiers in war. Sometimes us civilians forget that they are human beings too and have the same reaction to war as we do. Instead, we take them for granted thinking that they have been trained for this, this is their job. What we don’t understand is that no one can train you for war. It’s not just about fighting and killing the other guy but surviving through each day. In times of crises like this, a different brand of warfare and patriotism is warranted. This aspect is poignantly summarised in a scene where the rescued soldiers are returning home and are greeted by a blind man distributing bread. As he hands each man a piece of bread, he says – “Welcome back lads, you did good !”. One soldier can’t comprehend the generosity and asks – “But we haven’t done anything. We just survived.” to which the blind man replies without hesitation – “And that is enough.”
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