There is an almost ever-present ticking of a pocketwatch in Christopher Nolan’s latest war drama Dunkirk. Time plays an important role in the film, both in the presentation of its three intertwined stories and in the urgency of the situation, serving as a constant reminder that anything can change in an instant. For the 400,000 soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France during the early stages of World War II, time is all but running out.


The film is split into three separate storylines across varying timeframes during the evacuation of Dunkirk. The “land” section follows British Army private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to do whatever it takes to get back home. “Sea” follows private citizen Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son and his friend as they decide to take their own boat head directly towards the battlefield in order to bring soldiers across the Channel. Lastly, “Air” follows Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) whose mission is to protect British soldiers and ships by shooting down enemy pilots.


The most interesting aspect about Dunkirk is how the story is packaged. Rather that show the evacuation in chronological order from various viewpoints, Christopher Nolan instead dedicates a specific timeframe to each. Land covers a week, sea covers a day, and air covers an hour. It’s strange at first and takes a moment to get adjusted to. They occasionally intersect, but it’s at different moments in the film so you may see a scene from one person’s perspective before seeing the same scene from a different perspective later on. As weird as it may be, Nolan makes it work.


Nolan’s focus isn’t so much on the characters themselves but on the effects the war has on the soldiers and citizens. Dunkirk doesn’t explore characters’ backstories or give reasons as to why their fighting. Instead, we see a kid who we know has been through hell and just wants to get home. There’s no question as to how the war is affecting these people. Cillian Murphy plays a nameless soldier who is picked up by Mr. Dawson after his ship sank and he was left stranded on the wreckage. You don’t need to see what happened to him to understand that he’s terrified at the realization that they’re headed back to the beach to pick up more soldiers.


Dunkirk isn’t trying to sell you with its characters but with the war itself, and Nolan does that wonderfully with his intensely dramatic story paired brilliantly with Hans Zimmer’s equally amazing score. It’s a cinematic marvel that pushes the boundaries of filmmaking, showcasing why Nolan is one of the best directors in Hollywood.

Matt Rodriguez
Review by Matt Rodriguez
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