Achronological storytelling case study: Dunkirk.

Christopher Nolan is not my favorite director.

Hell, I’m not even sure if he cracks my top three. Sure, I like him plenty—Interstellar and Inception in particular. I think he’s done the second-best Batman out there (after the animated series). His greatest strengths lie in his cinematography and his editing capabilities (he tells tight, beautifully-shot stories). He has narrative themes he clearly likes to return to, and a talent for flawless casting choices.

But I’m not a die-hard fan, and am off-put by most Nolan-bros. Not every movie he makes is somehow intellectually deep and significant—nor does he need to be a visionary to produce great work.

Most of Nolan’s films simply haven’t been very intellectual, and that’s fine. They’re smart without being pretentious. I can leave the critical portion of my brain running for a Nolan film and walk away feeling stimulated and satisfied. At the end of the day, though, Nolan is usually telling clever, exciting action thrillers.

That’s all I want. That’s all I need.

But Dunkirk is different.

I loved Dunkirk. It’s easily my favorite Nolan film. Probably one of my favorite movies ever. This film left me incoherent. It took over my brain for days. Emotionally, it wound me up so tight and left me with so little catharsis that it was difficult to unspool. I simply couldn’t stop thinking about it. And it’s continued to stick with me longer than most movies I’ve seen.

I’ve talked to a number of people who said they had to see Dunkirk two or three times in order to really feel the impact. It seems to be the kind of film that grows on people, with most people saying their best experience was on the third viewing.

I have seen it once.

Two years ago.

I will be re-watching it before I post this, but right here and now, you should know that I have 3,000 words of film criticism written—complete with visual aids—about a movie I have only watched a single time (not counting YouTube clips), and that was over two years ago.

That should be an indication of how much I’ve thought about this movie.

In order to bring a modicum of restraint to this post, I’m going to focus on an aspect of this film that has drawn some undeserved criticism: Nolan’s use of achornological storytelling. I understand why this criticism gets made, and in some contexts, I would be more sympathetic. But in this story, I think it’s not only clever and interesting, I believe it was a genius way to resolve a specific storytelling problem.

This is gonna be a long one, but you’re not a captive audience. Consider yourselves forewarned

Time

Everyone knows that time is a common theme in Nolan movies. The most infamous example is Momento, in which the story moving forward is interspersed with the second half of the film played in reverse order. Then there’s Inception, where time moves differently depending on what dream level the characters are in, and Interstellar, which deals with time and relativity vis-a-vis black holes and gravity and shit. The upcoming movie, Tenet, also seems to involve time in some way, judging from the trailers.

I enjoy these types of stories, and I’ve noticed that I rarely struggle to keep track of what’s happening as the story jumps around. Some people find this more confusing than others, so I can also understand why it might be frustrating. But because I keep up pretty well, I also don’t (usually) think that it’s a particularly mind-blowing choice.

More importantly, though, in each of these films, the way time is treated serves a specific storytelling purpose. For instance, the storyline of Memento is edited to make the viewer perceive the world in a way that feels similar to the protagonist’s amnesia. In Interstellar, the hijinks with time had more to do with the physics of space travel. I could get into why I think Nolan chose to have his dream levels in Inception operate the way the did, but for now, I’m happy to leave it as simply “it was fun.”

However, I was baffled to hear people complaining about Nolan’s achronological storytelling choice in Dunkirk as if it were a mere gimmick instead of serving an essential storytelling function within the film. Not to understand this storytelling choice is to miss the point of the film.

Which—OK, maybe some people didn’t get the point. Assuming that’s so, I’m going to begin by offering up an analysis of the storytelling choices that Nolan made as a writer and director in making this film.

1. Subject matter.

I like to think a lot about how people hit upon the ideas for their stories. The first, most basic decision a storyteller makes is simply “what story am I going to tell?” After that, storytelling is a process of elimination and refinement. Every time the storyteller makes a decision, they’re erasing possible other stories that could have been told.

Thus: War story > WWII > the Miracle of Dunkirk.

Nolan wanted to tell the story of the Miracle of Dunkirk, because it holds a special place in the British psyche, and yet is widely unknown among American audiences. It also hasn’t been the subject of very many films, and is just a really good story.

2. Scope.

Once the storyteller chooses a subject, their next task is to begin refining that idea by narrowing the scope. Nolan could have chosen to tell a broad epic chronicling the build-up to the Miracle at Dunkirk, the experiences of the French citizens in the town, the German soldiers as they approach the coast of France, and the churning emotions of the British watching what unravels from afar, but he decided to focus on none of these things (many of which were left to Darkest Hour, which is a good accompanying film to see how two writers can choose the same subject matter but tell completely different stories based on the scope and focus of their narrative).

Instead, Nolan narrowed the scope of his story to encompass the experience of primarily British forces engaged in action during the Dunkirk evacuation. There are no politicians in this story, no Nazis, no broader British populace.

3. Point of View.

Nolan chose to tell his survival story about Dunkirk through the eyes of combatants and civilians engaged in the conflict across three fronts: land, sea, and air. Each of these arenas was important for understanding the experience of British forces during the Miracle of Dunkirk, and Nolan clearly wanted to give each arena equal weight.

However, these choices back Nolan into a storytelling corner because, having made these choices, telling the story in a satisfactory manner practically demands the achronological approach Nolan settled on. Granted, the problem was one of Nolan’s own making, based on the decisions he made in subject, scope, and POV. But, having made those choices, an achronological approach was probably his only way out.

If you disagree with the use of achronological storytelling, you have to also object to the decisions Nolan made in subject, scope, and POV. If you think the decisions about subject, scope, and POV are interesting and worthwhile, then you should also accept his use of achronological storytelling. Changing those decisions means telling a fundamentally different story.

And, for my money, I believe those are all strong decisions. I love watching storytellers back themselves into a corner precisely because it requires more original storytelling to get them out.

So. Why did those decisions lead to the achronological storytelling approach?

Because of two other crucial storytelling tools: pacing and character development.

Pacing problem #1: Why telling a strictly chronological story while maintaining scope wouldn’t have worked.

The events depicted in Dunkirk span one week. Now, if the events of the story are being told in a strictly chronological order, then the next decision the director must make is: how much weight should be given to each day? There are seven days, but the sea element doesn’t show up until the last day, and the air element only shows up in the last hour. So if the days are weighted equally, then about 85% of the movie would cover the Mole, and less than 1% would cover the Air.

Please observe my very nice graphic:

Pacing and POV of Dunkirk if told chronologically with equal weight given to each day.

Now, you can tell the story this way, but doing so would mean digging in to the character stranded on the beach for a lot longer. Given that the events would all take place on the beach, this story would have risked feeling a bit one-note. Probably, to keep it compelling, Nolan would have had to expand his scope to show more of the town, or spend some time digging into the characters’ backstories, which would have meant getting deeper into the broader British context than the scope was intended to cover. After sitting on the mole for most of the movie, the ships would have arrived out of the blue during the grand finale, with the RAF providing nothing but a neat coda.

This would have been a deeply immersive experience about what it was like to be a soldier stranded on the beach at Dunkirk, but it wouldn’t have sufficiently covered the other two points of view. And, as we covered earlier, part of the purpose of the story was to show all three perspectives. To achieve this, Nolan needed to give each part a similar amount of screen time.

Pacing problem #2: Why giving each POV the same amount of screen time while maintaining scope and chronology wouldn’t have worked.

Accomplishing this with a strictly chronological narrative would involve a different sort of pacing. To give each POV a similar amount of screen time, Nolan would have had to collapse the first six days that the soldiers spend on the Mole into the first third of the film. He would then have to focus most of the middle third on the sea, with only an occasional return to the mole, and then stretch out the last third of the film to introduce enough time for the air.

Please observe once more my very nice graphic:

Pacing of Dunkirk if each POV is given equal representation within a chronological timeline.

Again, Nolan could have told this story. In fact, if you were confused enough about the timeline to go searching for someone to reorganize the film into its chronological order, it would look something like the above. But I think it’s not hard to see why this would have been problematic in terms of pacing. It could work if each segment were treated almost as a distinct episode, but it would be hard to ignore how packed the first third would be and how elongated the last.

There’s another problem with this type of storytelling, though, and that has to do with character development. In this chronological treatment, the characters from the first third of the film covering the Mole would almost entirely drop out once the characters from the Sea were introduced. And then these characters would in turn disappear in time to introduce a third set of characters from the Air who hadn’t previously been seen for the first two thirds of the film.

Again, as a three-part mini series this might have worked (Chernobyl treats characters this way effectively), but as a movie it would have been highly dissatisfactory.

Pacing problem #3: Why evenly distributing character development while maintaining scope and chronology wouldn’t have worked.

To introduce all three POVs early in the film to establish all the characters while also giving each POV about equal weight, you would need to edit the film together a bit like this:

The three POVs of Dunkirk, edited together to give equal weight to each POV and have all characters represented throughout the duration of the film.

You’ll notice this graph has all the POVs nicely interspersed, but there’s still the matter of timing to consider. In order to do this within a chronological narrative, one of two approaches has to happen: Either the scope of the story is expanded to cover all three POVs for the duration of the week, or the scope needs to be narrowed down to cover all three POVs for only the last few hours, picking up perhaps as the ships set sail and as the RAF pilots are just getting their orders in the morning.

I think that latter solution is clearly the least satisfactory. Doing so would have cut out a huge chunk of the Mole storyline, and would have lessened the experience of watching the soldiers trying to survive that whole week. I can’t imagine the end result being anything less than a disappointing treatment of the subject matter.

The former approach is the more conventional one, but it would have required Nolan to broaden the scope of his story significantly. It would have meant introducing the Sea and Air characters earlier and showing how they spent the week while the soldiers where stranded on the Mole. Perhaps we would see Dawson and Peter eating dinner at home while mourning the loss of their son and brother. George might be interacting with villagers and hearing about the stranded soldiers. Farrier and Collins might be waiting restlessly for a chance to give air support to the soldiers at the beach, responding to angry citizens who are asking why they aren’t out there fighting, or undergoing training with the spitfire pilot leader who is shot down during the first dogfight.

But these additional elements would have removed us from the front lines, breaking the intensity of the movie, and offering the audience some emotional solace unavailable to the soldiers on the mole. It’s a conventional choice. But not a strong one.

Solution: The only way to maintain scope, give equal weight to all POVs, properly develop characters, and maintain the intense, survival-horror pace is through achronological story telling.

At heart, Dunkirk is a survival horror story that also happens to be real history. Nolan made choices as a director and a writer about how to tell his story because he wanted to convey some portion of the terror felt by the soldiers on the front lines at Dunkirk. In order to maintain the requisite level of suspense, the threat of death must be omnipresent and unpredictable. It is impossible to do this if we keep leaving the realm of immediate danger to go back to life on the backlines.

So, Nolan, having settled on Dunkirk as the subject matter, clearly opted for a narrow scope that gave equal weight to the three POVs of land, sea, and sky. Once he made those decisions, handling the story in a strictly chronological manner would have led to serious problems of both pacing and character development, and fixing the pacing and character development would have meant changing the scope of the story, altering the balance of the POVs, or telling a less intense story that was not about survival horror.

Within the parameters Nolan set for himself, the best solution was to take an achronological approach, and the way Nolan executed this was nothing short of a directorial masterpiece.

And for what it’s worth, I love that this is such a straight take on historical events. Most of history just happens, but it’s not often you get to experience it raw, as opposed to dressed up in some larger melodrama.

War stories often fall afoul of history by being grandiose, myth-making machines. They’re about stirring up Big Feelings that get attached to a national ethos, usually in support of a certain interpretation of history. World War II is particularly susceptible to this, being the only war that any of us ever feels unreservedly proud for fighting.

The problem with these stories is that they often focus on the Great Men* of history while neglecting the experiences of those on the ground, living the day-to-day reality. And because they take this approach, they often also fall into black-and-white, us vs. them, Good vs. Evil narratives that are problematic as they lack nuance and fail to grapple with nitty-gritty gray areas, because those things make us feel bad.

Things like how defeating Hitler meant allying with Stalin. Or how many Allied citizens supported Hitler’s ethnonationalism—until he started attacking their countries. Or how many citizens from Axis countries were themselves victims of the fascist regimes brought to power by their friends and neighbors.

In other words, myths make for bad history. But history rarely makes for clean stories that can be fit into an entertaining two-hour timeframe.

This is what I love about Dunkirk. There are no famous politicians delivering speeches, no generals, no backstories—hell, no context, even. Just a mixed bag of ordinary people, more or less heroic. All we are asked is to accept them as we find them, and then invest ourselves intensely in their survival.

The result is a far more visceral—and far more human—war movie than any I have ever seen.

Coda: Nolan and Subjectivity.

I was 3,000 words into writing this piece before I looked up anyone else’s explanation of why Nolan chose to tell his story in this way. So, after spending several hours typing this up, creating visual aids, and reviewing Wikipedia pages to refresh my memory, I thought maybe I should see if anyone else picked up on what I was trying to say here, or if my breakdown of the Dunkirk storytelling rationale were actually a sign that I was losing my mind.

Instead, I came across this quote from Nolan himself:

“It’s all about point of view. … It became apparent to me that in order to build up a coherent picture of the larger events of Dunkirk, without jumping out to a different perspective where you have generals in rooms pushing things around on maps, it’s necessary to divide point of view into three different strands…so that with each strand you’re telling the story intensively, subjectively.” 

Full quote from an interview with IGN.

Awesome.

*Mostly men; rarely great.