Warning: Spoilers below for the film DUNKIRK.

Christopher Nolan’s favorite cinematic tool is time. He manipulates it perfectly to play with our expectations and to reveal character details with weaponized accuracy. Nolan’s first major film MEMENTO used an inverted timeline to help audiences understand the amnesia of its protagonist. BATMAN BEGINS frequently used flashbacks to peel back the layered psyche of Bruce Wayne. In INTERSTELLAR, Nolan used the gravitational warping of time to inject personal tragedy into a film of cosmic scale.

In DUNKIRK, survival depends on time. Hans Zimmer’s score features constant ticking as an ominous reminder that every second for these valiant souls cannot be wasted. In DUNKIRK, time is the antagonist, more so than the Germans. It’s Nolan’s masterful understanding of cinematic time in DUNKIRK that conveys the heroism of survival. 

The Beaches of Dunkirk

Told chronologically, DUNKIRK would be a very different film, with the repeated failed escapes culminating into one final rescue by sea and air. Instead, the film is a chronological nesting doll with three different events cut together. We see a week on land for the soldiers evacuating Dunkirk, one day at sea with citizens attempting to aid in the rescue, and one hour in the air with a pair of fighter pilots desperately defending the evacuees. Without breaking the tension, Nolan manages to reveal character through the manipulation of time in each story as they struggle to save themselves or others.

The beach evacuation primarily follows soldiers Tommy (Fion Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles). Each of these three face the Sisyphean task of escaping Dunkirk. Ship after ship fills up or is blown to pieces, forcing the men back to shore. The rolling tides and sliding sands around them are a reminder of their hopeless task. They push forward only to be pushed right back again.

Here, Nolan strips the romanticism away from the Dunkirk incident. The moral calculus of war is on full horrific display. Tommy and Gibson pick up a wounded soldier on a stretcher, not out of empathy, but to get priority on a departing ship. Survival is necessary, it’s a human instinct, but it can be an ugly one. When the trio finally manage to get on an evacuation boat, it is almost immediately sunk by a U-boat missile. As the boat capsizes, Gibson, mercifully above deck, manages to open the door to the lower decks, allowing some of the men to swim out of the sinking vessel to safety. As the boat slips beneath the water, so slips away previous time. The fight to survive becomes more and more desperate. For these soldiers, it’s a race against time, each day on the beach another day closer to death.

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Time not only drives the plot forward; it also pushes the characters forward. At one point, Tommy, Gibson, and Alex meet up with another group of soldiers who discover a fishing boat washed ashore. They climb into this boat hoping it will provide them with escape. As the boat is pulled out by the tide, the ship begins sinking after the hull is riddled with bullets. The men realize they can keep the boat afloat if they discard weight. Alex almost immediately suggests kicking off Gibson. Gibson has been mostly silent through the trip. Alex suspects he is silent because he is actually a German spy. Gibson reveals he is not German, but French. He hoped to slip in with the British troops to get off the island as soon as possible.

Time applies pressure to morality. Each of these boys are decent people, but the desperate need to survive makes them turn against each other. This betrayal is made all the more tragic when the boat sinks and Gibson is the only one who does not survive. It’s the ticking clock that breaks their ability to trust one another. Without that trust, survival becomes impossible.

Fight on the Seas and the Oceans

Nolan also warps time to explore the emotional toll of war. Out on sea, Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), along with their young neighbor George (Barry Keoghan), head towards Dunkirk to aid in the rescue. The first wayward soldier they encounter (played by Cillian Murphy) is sitting in a huddled ball on a capsized boat. When he learns of Dawson’s plan to return to Dunkirk, his broken psyche begins to surface. 

When we first meet Cillian Murphy’s character during Dawson’s rescue, it’s clear the trauma he has endured is overwhelming. This is juxtaposed with the timeline of Tommy and Gibson to see the wayward solider before his rescue. At this point, he is confident and calm despite of the chaos around him. He commands his small group of escapees and handles the stress of the situation well.

Nolan shows us the character now, contrasted with how the character was. In fact, the character is referred to only as “Shivering Soldier” in the film’s credits. The horrors of war have stripped him of his identity. By allowing us to see the soldier before his rescue, we better understand the overwhelming psychological toll thrust onto soldiers.

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Much like Alex, the Shivering Soldier faces his own moment of moral crisis. As Dawson sails toward Dunkirk, the Soldier’s demands to turn back become violent when he pushes George down the steps of the boat. George suffers a fatal blow to the head. The pressure to survive, the fear of time running out, causes the Soldier to lash out at the cost of the life of yet another innocent life.

Dawson says that old men start wars and send young men to die. In a way, Dawson embodies that sentiment as an old man who sent George out to die. But George also chose to join him in pursuit of a higher cause. As George dies, he tells Peter that he always wanted to do something important to earn the respect of everyone in his small town. George was young and full of potential, but in war, time is precious and it can be snatched from the young and the old alike. Sometimes those deaths can seem random and meaningless, but it’s conviction that make someone heroic, not how they die.

Calm in the Face of Chaos

Dawson’s bold stoicism is the counterpoint to the fear of time. He firmly believes that it is his duty to rescue the soldiers of Dunkirk with nothing more than his recreational sailboat. His composure under the pressure of time is what Nolan suggests is the key to survival.

Dawson’s calm veneer only cracks at one particular moment. A British Spitfire is shot down and crash lands in the ocean near Dawson. The cockpit fills with water while the pilot, Collins (Jack Lowden), is trapped inside. As water floods the plane, Dawson races his boat toward the downed aircraft. His son warns him away, but Dawson refuses to listen. He simply cannot let the pilot drown if there’s a chance for rescue. Dawson’s calm in the face of chaos is ultimately what saves Collins as well as Tommy, Alex, and a few other stranded soldiers.

Later, after the successful rescue, Peter reveals to Collins that his brother was in the Royal Air Force and died only a few weeks into the war. Again, Nolan withholds information about a character only to employ it at just the right moment. Each of these men owe their lives to Dawson, and yet each of these men gave Dawson the one thing he never had: the chance to save his oldest son. He managed to turn back time to the moment of his son’s death and save other fathers from the pain of his own grief.

Strength in the Air

The most consistently tense of the three stories is undoubtedly Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his aerial battle. Only an hour passes in this sequence, but the airborne game of cat and mouse is anxiety-inducing. Farrier’s story is slight, but it reinforces what makes Nolan’s structure of the film so brilliant. German planes, ready to rain hell upon the soldiers below, swoop in and out of the frame. Every moment reminds us of the grave peril that looms over Dunkirk. By parsing a single hour over the course of the entire run time, Nolan is able to focus on the most intense moments of the battle. In addition, the time limit makes the slowly dwindling fuel supply another “ticking clock” element to ramp up the pressure put on the fighter pilots.

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Farrier is also a shining example of Nolan’s belief in rational calm in the face of pressure. Despite the perilous battle raging around him, Farrier is calm and in control for every second he is on film. When his gas gauge is suddenly damaging, he simply marks down his remaining fuel in chalk for future reference. As his fuel runs out, he lets his plane glide onto the beaches below.

Back in England, one of the soldiers harasses Collins for not helping at the beach. Many of the soldiers on the beach were bombarded by German planes without an Air Force pilot in sight. Despite the fact that Collins saved so many, his efforts went largely unnoticed. Dawson reassures him by pointing to the men from his boat saying “they know what you did.”

It’s not about receiving thanks for your actions, it’s about doing what is right because it is right. In this way, Farrier is the most purely Christopher Nolan character. He is an unquestionable expert in his field. He disregards the ticking clock around him. Most importantly, he sacrifices himself for the greater good. When his plane lands on the beaches of Dunkirk, the evacuation has ended. Farrier ends up in the clutches of the Nazis. The final shot of him lingers on his stoic face. By surviving, he saved hundreds of lives and found victory even in his capture. Yet, his brave actions will go unrecognized by anyone.

The tragedy of surviving is that it’s a personal, private victory. An old man congratulates the soldiers of Dunkirk as they return. “All we did was survive,” Tommy says. “That’s enough,” the old man responds. It’s in Farrier that this selfless form of heroism is most evident.

The Value of Survival

Christopher Nolan is often called a cold, detached filmmaker. I would strongly disagree with that notion. He is certainly a precise and slightly reserved filmmaker, but he has a fundamentally warm and hopeful view of humanity. Many of his films are about ordinary people using the precious, limited time in their lives to do the extraordinary. The battles of morality waged each day are just as important as the wars fought in battlefields. 

Just as it expresses his views on morality, DUNKIRK is also Nolan’s ultimate expression of his obsession with time. We will never be able to “beat it” as we can a physical enemy, but we can survive it. The ultimate war we all face is the battle against time. That push and pull against an unbeatable enemy may seem tragic, but Nolan has always fundamentally believed that pushing forward against the crushing weight of time is the most noble of achievements. The clock will keep ticking, so we must find a way to survive.

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