Christopher Nolan Has Always Been Headed Toward 'Dunkirk'

The director takes on his first true story but keeps some of the experimental tricks of the trade he's been honing for decades.
From left: 'Memento,' 'Dunkirk' and 'Inception'

[Warning: This story contains minor spoilers for Dunkirk]

“An idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. It can grow to define or destroy you.” These words come courtesy of one of Christopher Nolan’s strongest films, his 2010 science-fiction action thriller Inception. However, those words just as accurately represent the driving element of his latest film, Dunkirk. It’s not surprising that Nolan, one of our best modern auteurs, would return to similar themes in multiple films, but Dunkirk is a true first for the Anglo-American director. As his first feature based on a true story, the iconic Dunkirk evacuation in World War II, Dunkirk could have been Nolan’s most insurmountable challenge yet.

The resilient and highly contagious idea at the core of Dunkirk, at the forefront of the mind of each British and French soldier depicted onscreen as they attempt to avoid the bullets and bombs fired at them by the mostly unseen Nazi enemy, is simply to survive. Nolan’s take on World War II is intensely claustrophobic in every possible way. Outside of a brief series of subtitles, there is no outside historical context provided to us regarding the evacuation’s place in the larger war. Few of the characters are given names, and their lives before and after the evacuation are ignored. Nolan basically throws the audience into the evacuation, splitting focus between soldiers on the ground over one week, British civilians trying to help evacuate soldiers on the sea over one day, and a trio of RAF pilots shooting German fighters out of the air over one hour.

By focusing on three different sections of the Dunkirk evacuation, with overlapping timelines, Nolan gets to harken back to Inception in more ways than just that quote. The second half of Inception is one of Nolan’s finest pieces of filmmaking, a high-wire balancing act between varying layers of dream worlds that works far more fluidly than it should. Dunkirk may not have a note of the fanciful or fantastical, but because each section takes place at different points of the evacuation, there’s a similar sense of displacement that manages to never be disjointed or confusing. Nolan and his technical crew, including cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and editor Lee Smith, manage to turn a well-worn genre into something specifically, recognizably theirs via these multiple plots.

Nolan’s breakout film Memento famously jumps between two timelines, one moving forward and the other moving backward, in depicting a neo-noir tale about a man with short-term memory loss. The Prestige not only features two lead characters on different journeys, but also constantly shifts from present to past to future to disorient the audience. Even Batman Begins hops between the present and past to depict how Bruce Wayne becomes the Caped Crusader. As Dunkirk reaches its final 30 minutes, Nolan’s spare screenplay brings some of the disparate characters from each section together, joining the timelines in a way that feels satisfying outside of the general thrill of seeing the British briefly triumph over the Germans. Here, Dunkirk feels as much like a Christopher Nolan film as the rest of his filmography; seeing the various characters share space after so much time apart is equivalent to the excitement in Inception of watching Leonardo DiCaprio’s dream thief and his crew succeed in their massive heist just as time is about to run out.

This, in effect, is how Nolan handles the war-film genre. The way that he stages each of the various attacks by the Germans is remarkable and often unbearably suspenseful. There are the planes soaring overhead as they strafe soldiers huddled on the beach or the unseen soldiers using a boat secretly housing a group of British and Scottish privates as target practice. His decision to avoid historical context, or really any kind of detailed characterization of specific soldiers (even those played by recognizable actors like Tom Hardy or Kenneth Branagh), allows Dunkirk to feel as sparse and stripped-down as anything in his filmography. But it’s in balancing multiple plotlines that share a common goal that makes this feel like Nolan’s other films, in a good way.

War films are one of the most enduring cinematic genres, and two of Christopher Nolan’s influences — Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick — made some of their best work within the genre. So it’s not surprising that Nolan himself got there eventually. But after working so often in the realm of science fiction and comic books, it was easy to wonder if Dunkirk would fit within Nolan’s ethos and style. (Perhaps the most notable, but logical, thematic absence: there’s nary a jaw-dropping twist to be found here.) As opposed to bringing supposed gritty realism to fantastical genres, Dunkirk would have to just be as real as possible. Some of the hallmarks of a Nolan film are unmistakably present here; the risky choice to utilize multiple timelines ends up paying off, making Dunkirk one of Nolan’s best, as well as one of the best films of the year.