Genre: War Drama
Premise: (from IMDB) Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.
About: After Interstellar, people were wondering if Christopher Nolan had lost his mojo. So the film-loving Netflix-hating secretive director decided to reinvent himself by writing his first war movie. It’s been awhile since anyone opened a big-budget serious film during the summer months, making a July release for Dunkirk a bit of a gamble. But the flick made 50 million dollars over the weekend. Not bad for a movie with zero superheroes.
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Details: 1 hour and 45 minute running time

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Remember Lessthanstellar, Christopher Nolan’s last film?

I do. It was a messy sci-fi catastophe that fell apart the further into its 8 hour running time it got.

And it’s responsible for teaching us today’s first screenwriting lesson.

Movies work better with tighter timeframes.

Without getting into specifics, the longer your timeframe is, the more room there is to screw things up.

This is why Dunkirk is a masterpiece compared to Nolan’s last film. By focusing on a brief timeframe of only one week, the story is able to charge forward and tell a tense tight story. Now Nolan plays around with that timeframe, which is something we’ll get into. But if you guys leave this review with anything, leave knowing that a tight timeframe improves your chances of writing a good movie.

For those of you who have no intention of seeing Dunkirk, I’ll summarize it for you. It’s about a famous moment in World War 2 where 400,000 (mostly British) Allied troops were stuck on a French (?) beach waiting for extraction. The problem was, supply ships and army vehicles were stretched thin, leaving these soldiers sitting ducks for enemy planes to swoop in and bomb them.

Nolan divides his focus into three storylines. There’s the soldiers on the beach, represented by baby-faced soldier Tommy, who attempts to get off the beach by any means possible. There’s three fighter pilots, led by Farrier, doing whatever they can to keep enemy airplanes from bombing the beach. And there’s a civilian ship that’s aiding the rescue mission, led by old-timer Mr. Dawson.

But Dunkirk is no straight-forward mission. Farrier’s storyline starts 1 hour before the rescue. Mr. Dawson’s storyline starts 1 day before the rescue. And Tommy’s storyline starts 1 week before the rescue. Nolan then cuts these storylines up non-linearly. For example, Mr. Dawson will save a soldier from a sunken boat, only for us to see that same soldier a few scenes later, getting onto that boat before it sank.

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If you’re looking for ammunition to attack Dunkirk, that would be where you’d start. The other day we were talking about taking chances. One of the options, I explained, was playing with time. And Nolan’s done that here. The question is, did he need to? Would the movie have played the same, or better, had he told it linearly?

Nolan is notorious for something I’m going to call the “binary viewing experience.” He believes that a straight-forward story is boring. For a story to work, your mind should be working on two different levels. Here we have the story of soldiers trying to get off a beach before being massacred. But while this is happening, our brain is ALSO attempting to re-order the out-of-order narrative.

I was against this choice at first and I’ll tell you why with an analogy. In football, when the other team starts using trick plays, it means they don’t believe they’re good enough to beat you straight up.

The same can be said with storytelling. Once the writer starts trying to do all this weird tricky shit, it’s an indication that they don’t think the story is good enough to work on its own.

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The one amendment to this is when the writer has a specific reason for why they’re incorporating trickery. 500 Days of Summer, for example, used its time-jumpy format to draw attention to the chaos of relationships. By showing us a perfect date (Day 30 of the relationship) mashed up against a brutal fight (Day 230 of the relationship), we were able to look at relationships in a way that wouldn’t have been the same had we traversed the 200 days between those two moments.

So I was trying to figure out if Nolan was trying to distract us from a story that would’ve been boring otherwise, or if there was a method to the madness.

I’m still not sure what the answer is. I suppose the jumping around makes the story slightly more interesting than it would’ve been otherwise. But I’m not convinced it was necessary. At no point did I think, “Oh, there’s NO WAY this movie works if you don’t tell it out of order.” And if that’s the case, then why tell it out of order?

While time-manipulation may be the major geek talking point of Dunkirk, I was far more interested in the sparse storytelling and lack of traditional character development.

Nolan ONLY has his characters speak when they have to, leaving large swaths of his canvas dialogue-free. And I thought it was great.

We’ve become way too dialogue-dependent as an industry and that’s because it’s easier! It’s easy to patch in some on-the-nose conversation to move the story along. It’s MUCH HARDER to figure out how to get through a potentially confusing section with images and actions alone. Which is why writers avoid it.

For example, Tommy and another soldier, Gibson, run into each other at the beginning of the story near a dead soldier’s body. This is followed by a bombing scene, a bunch of soldiers on the beach getting injured, and then those injured soldiers getting priority evac onto the only ship leaving the beach at the moment.

We then see Tommy and Gibson carrying their “injured” soldier in order to cut through the lines and get onto that ship. There is never a word spoken between the two about their plan. We experience it dialogue-free.

Had this been any other script, I assure you we would’ve gotten a scene – maybe even two – with Tommy and Gibson discussing their plan. “I have an idea.” “What?” “We can cut through the lines if we pretend he’s injured.” “But what if they catch us?” “Who’s going to check?”

Also, when you don’t do dialogue, you force yourself to build characters through actions and choices, which is always the most effective way to do so. Consider Tommy, who’s willing to pretend a dead man is injured to cut his fellow soldiers and get out on that first boat. That tells us so much about the character without saying a word.

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With that said, dialogue-free scenes should be saved for situation-dependent scenarios. For example, when a group of guys needs to escape a building that’s being bombed, you don’t need dialogue for that scene. But when it comes to large plot points, going dialogue-free doesn’t make sense.

And that was my one big beef with Dunkirk.

I didn’t understand, for example, why they were on this beach. Had they just won a battle? Had they just retreated from a battle? I didn’t even know what country they were in, to be honest. I also didn’t understand why, if they were “surrounded” like the flyers said, that the Germans didn’t attack. There’s a throwaway line from one of the generals explaining, “Why waste tanks and troops when they can just shoot fish in a barrel with their planes?” Okay, that would make sense… IF THERE WERE MORE THAN 3 PLANES!

The clever thing that Nolan does though – and I don’t know if this was intentional or not – is create a non-stop scramble so intense, we stop thinking about the bigger questions. We just want these individual characters we’ve met to get out alive.

In the end, that relentless energy is what kept me so engaged. So despite the gripes I mentioned above, I would easily put this in the “must see in the theater” category. It’s an unusual movie that gets a lot right and puts Nolan back on the map as a filmmaker.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: It’s always a more powerful viewing experience when the audience gets to add things up themselves. When the writer does the work for them, it’s not as fun. For example, that scene I mentioned above about Tommy and Gibson carrying the fake-injured soldier onto the boat – me figuring out what they were doing without being told made the moment much richer because I felt rewarded for my work.

  • Poe_Serling

    Monday, Monday (almost)… of course, in my best The Mamas & the
    Papas singing voice.

    This past weekend I got outvoted by my posse and went to see
    Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets instead of Dunkirk.

    (Don’t worry – it was a bargain price showing of the flick. So,
    the P_S fortune is still pretty much intact). ;-)

    Perhaps I’ll have a chance to catch D later this week.

    Probably my TOP 5 films dealing with war-related battles/events/
    etc.:

    >>The Patriot

    Just don’t see too many films with a Revolutionary War slant (my
    runner-up in this category John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk).
    I really enjoyed Ledger’s performance in this one. And no actor
    goes off the tracks better than Mel.

    >>Glory

    Compelling story. Memorable cast. Breathtaking cinematography.
    Real attention to period detail. With a stunning ending that always
    packs an emotional wallop for me.

    >>Gettysburg

    Growing up, the historical site was just a Sunday drive away from my
    front door. If you get the opportunity to visit the military park, I encourage
    you to watch this film first. It makes touring that famous battlefield really
    come to life in a profound way.

    >>Apocalypse Now

    A true ’70s classic. A powerful and surreal meditation on war itself.
    The perfect use of VO in my opinion. The viewer knows everything
    they need to about Kurtz even before the boat reaches its remote
    jungle location and his image flickers onto the screen.

    >>The ‘hard to pick just one more’ slot

    This group of flicks includes The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, and
    a few others.

    • Scott Serradell

      A few obscure movies of related interest:

      COME AND SEE (Elim Klimov, 1985)
      Russians fighting Germans in WW2 from a Russian point-of-view. Grotesque, brutal, and hallucinatory.

      ARMY OF SHADOWS (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)
      The director of ‘Le Samourai’ tackles the French Resistance. Some of ‘Munich’ was “inspired” by this film.

      GRAVE OF FIREFLIES (Isao Takahata, 1988)
      A young boy and his younger sister survive the bombing of their city in Japan just before the end of the second World War. Heartbreaking and emotionally devastating.

      A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004)
      From the director of ‘Amelie’, a young woman searches for her fiance who disappeared in the trenches during World War 1. A bit uneven but a beautifully shot film.

      BATTLE OF ALGIERS (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
      The power of this film cannot be blurbed. Anyone with an interest in directing must see it and study it.

      • brenkilco

        Battle of Algiers is absolutely essential. One of the most technically influential movies ever made. And Army of Shadows is great. The life of a resistance worker was mostly low key and unheroic and mind numbingly terrifiying every minute. Caught Come and See for the first time recently. And while it’s very good, I think those who claim it as a masterpiece are somewhat overselling it.

        • Scott Serradell

          I myself wouldn’t call ‘Come and See’ a masterpiece. But for another perspective (re: non-American) of WW2 I think it’s very effective.

  • Justin

    Wait, so people really did dislike Interstellar? I thought it was near brilliant…

    Or maybe I just loved the soundtrack? I will admit that was the best part throughout the entire film. I’ve rewatched it often, just so I could experience the soundtrack again.

    The “black hole separate dimension” or whatnot was a bit odd, but I thought it pulled itself through with Cooper and Murph’s father-daughter connection.

  • Will_Alexander

    Pretty sure the guy on the stretcher was actually still alive at the beginning. I thought he was moving before they picked him up.

    And the two of them not talking seems fine at first, but then you realize about an hour in that it was a storytelling cheat in order to hide a reveal.

    It’s a cinema experience, for sure, like Gravity. But, also like Gravity, it sadly doesn’t have much in the way of story for me.

    Only in reading later did I realize what Nolan had left out: the men on the beach were able to survive the German attack that long because the French were holding the Germans off. Seems a missed opportunity not to include that as a storyline.

    I did a double feature today and saw War for the Planet of the Apes as well. It’ll be the one I’m looking forward to re-watching, but I may do Dunkirk in proper 70mm IMAX next weekend.

    And Carson, I think you also mixed up the timelines. Rylance on his boat is the one day time period, and the beach story takes a week.

    • brenkilco

      The French are reportedly tres pissed about the movie.

  • brenkilco

    What I learned: It’s always a more powerful viewing experience when the audience gets to add things up themselves.

    One of Billy Wilder’s 10 screenwriting tips. He was quoting Lubitsch “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you for it.”

    As for the fractured time frame, if the story doesn’t demand it and/or it doesn’t result in a jaw dropping plot payoff then chances are it’s going to be seen as showing off. Havent caught Dunkirk yet but I have to think that a sequential telling would have necessitated the periodic dropping of one supposed protagonist for another. So I get the temptation to introduce characters when you want to, not when a linear narrative says you have to.

    And while I give Nolan credit for limiting dialogue with what Hitchcock would have called pure cinema, part of this might have been the director’s honest conclusion that he doesn’t write particularly good dialogue.

    And not to be too hard on Carson, but if you go to see a movie called Dunkirk and freely admit that you don’t know why all those guys are on the beach well…….just don’t, even if it’s true. Perfectly OK to ask why the Germans didn’t pounce. Still a subject of debate seventy odd years later.

    • Will_Alexander

      The fractured timeline does lend a sense of rising tension that probably wouldn’t have been present if we stayed on the beach for a week, with a very short aerial dogfight intermission followed by the arrival of civilian boats. I read an interview with Nolan where he talks about a Shepard Tone that I’d never heard of: a musical tone that simultaneously climbs up and down the scale to create a kind of unresolving tension in the listener. He structured the script around that idea and it shows.

      • carsonreeves1

        That’s true but he didn’t need to tell the story in a week. He could’ve kept the timeframe to 1 day.

        I did like the score. There was something different about it that worked.

        • Will_Alexander

          Doing the whole thing in a day would be interesting. At the moment I can’t actually think of a reason not to do it that way, but I bet I’m missing something…

      • brenkilco

        I’ll buy the need to keep constant tension. The harmonic stuff however sounds like horse shit.

        • Will_Alexander

          I can understand that but try two things: look up the Shepard Tone and give it a listen (noting how it makes you feel), then watch the movie and note all the times you hear it on the soundtrack (why do those dive bombers sound like they’re always coming for us but never actually getting any closer…).

    • carsonreeves1

      I try and abide by Nolan’s credo, which is to go into his movies knowing nothing (or as little as possible). That’s the way he wants you to see every movie he makes. If I’m going to hold up that half of the bargain, it’s his job to, then, explain to me where we are and what’s going on.

      I would probably agree with you that *I* should’ve known more about Dunkirk. But I guarantee you that the average American moviegoer will have no idea what it is or what it was about. It’s up to the writer to make that clear.

      • Scott Serradell

        What format did you end up seeing it in? IMAX?

        • carsonreeves1

          No, just normal. The 70mm was sold out. Strangely enough, the theater I got was a bigger theater than the one with the 70mm. No idea how that stuff works.

    • Scott Serradell

      Another reason I had heard for the limited dialogue was due to the mechanical noise from the IMAX cameras; every actor would have to be re-dubbed anyway. So it seems Nolan cut out the middleman and let the ‘images’ tell the story. Seems like it worked to his advantage IMO.

      • brenkilco

        Hm, sorta the audio equivalent of the shark not working.

    • klmn

      I’ve read that Heinz Guderian was ordered to stop his advance. So, perhaps the Brits should thank the German command – perhaps Hitler himself.

      • brenkilco

        I’ve read that there was some feeling that Britain could be reasoned with, a sense among certain members of the German government that the two nations were not natural enemies. And that this new guy Churchill might respond positively to a bit of noblesse oblige. A really bad call if true.

  • carsonreeves1

    By the way, I put this review up early so I can watch some Ozark tonight. On ep 3. So far, so good!