Granted, this historical introspection often falls short — it’s an action movie first and foremost, and doesn’t seek to challenge established, often whitewashed views of history — but its structural experimentation makes it one of Nolan’s most intense, incisive and emotionally engaging works. With the help of composer Hans Zimmer, whose score feels like the foundation for the film’s winding approach to time, Dunkirk proves to be a unique achievement, splitting the difference between “prestige” war drama and Nolan’s brand of blockbuster entertainment.
In the final installment of our deep dive into Nolan’s films, we explore what is arguably his strongest collaboration with Smith and Zimmer (neither of whom were available for Tenet), and the renewed visual panache brought to his work by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. We also look at how Dunkirk’s approach to history might’ve been tightened with a few minor narrative tweaks.
A Film About Structure
The “Mole” section of the film, focused on the 400,000 soldiers stranded at Dunkirk beach, follows two sets of characters. On one hand, British Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Army Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) provide dramatic exposition to frame the 1940 Allied evacuation — between land, air and sea — while yearning for hope just out of reach. “You can practically see it from here,” Bolton says. “Home.”
On the other hand, a British private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a disguised French soldier dubbed “Gibson” (Aneurin Barnard) and British Highlander Alex (Harry Styles) help root the film’s POV in a story of soldiers attempting to escape and survive the ordeal. (None of these characters except “Gibson” are named in the film, but for clarity they’re referred to here by their names in the credits.)
From the get-go, Tommy finds himself not only at odds with oncoming German fire, but with hierarchies and national delineations. The film’s very first line (“English! I’m English!”) sees Tommy having to clarify, to his French comrades, that he’s on their side so they stop trying to kill him. Shortly after, the young private joins a queue of British soldiers waiting to board a rescue ship, but he’s asked to leave by a fellow Briton, who tells him it’s only for grenadiers.
In the film’s opening scenes, the army’s internal, structural conflict feels on par with external dangers (Nazi gunfire, manifesting mostly as sound, and Heinkel bomber planes in the distance; they may as well be part of the backdrop). The human antagonists in the film — at least, those whose faces we see — are higher-ranking British soldiers who make their inferiors disembark from rescue boats, pushing them out if necessary.
Tommy finds an ally in the Frenchman “Gibson” (the name of the dead British soldier whose uniform he steals). As they attempt to board a departing ship by carrying an injured soldier, they pass through a French regiment being denied safe passage by a British officer. These soldiers are all in the same predicament, but the ship is reserved for British troops. A covert conversation involving Bolton and Winnant clarifies why that is: Publicly, Prime Minister Churchill has announced that the British and the French will leave bras dessus — arm in arm. Privately, their orders are to ensure the return of as many British troops as possible for the next leg of the war.
Where The Dark Knight Rises treats hierarchies and unquestioned orders as an appendix (they’re the impetus for John Blake giving up his badge and following in Batman’s footsteps), Dunkirk depicts them as a central theme running throughout its story. Early on in the “Sea” section, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) takes his ferry, the Moonstone, out to the English Channel without waiting for it to be commandeered by the Navy, while the “Air” timeline sees RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) turning back from his established course to save soldiers swimming away from a German bomber. This climactic rescue mission features the intersection of all three timelines, and would not have occurred had Dawson and Farrier followed strict orders to head straight for Dunkirk beach.
Several of these swimming soldiers, like Tommy and Alex, were caught in a deadly dilemma not long before, which brought the film’s approach to military structures into sharp, unnerving focus. Aboard a sinking Dutch merchant vessel, Alex and his fellow Highlanders decide that Gibson ought to disembark. The lightened load might help them float, though it would likely result in Gibson being killed by enemy fire. Alex’s reason for picking Gibson? He believes him to be a German spy, and so as an enemy combatant, his life is less valuable.
However, when Gibson reveals himself to be French, the circle which Alex and the Highlanders draw around their in-group begins to shrink. Gibson being their ally means nothing, since he isn’t British, but is merely impersonating a British soldier for safety. That circle grows even smaller when Alex decides that if Gibson’s sacrifice isn’t enough, Tommy — who disguised himself as a Highlander to blend in — would be next; he isn’t one of them either. “We’re regimental brothers, mate,” Alex tells him. “That’s just the way it is.”
It’s a harrowing scene, one in which characters who have only ever helped Alex are cast aside for his survival. However, one wonders how much more of an impact these narrowing circles might’ve had if the film had widened its historical scope.
A Historical Blindspot
Dunkirk explores how fear makes in-groups grow smaller and more conditional. However, the structures on which the film focuses are pretty narrow to begin with from a historical standpoint. White French and British soldiers weren’t the only combatants stranded at Dunkirk, and the hierarchical delineations were even more rigid for Indian troops fighting on behalf of the British Empire, and for Moroccan, Tunisian, Senegalese and Algerian soldiers fighting for France.
India wouldn’t gain independence from Britain until 1947 — two years after World War II, and four years after a man-made famine in which Churchill’s policies killed 3 million people. It was a horrific chapter of WWII history, comparable to the Nazi holocaust, but often ignored in order to lionize Churchill’s and Britain’s achievements in the era. Meanwhile, Morocco and Tunisia would remain under French occupation until 1956, Senegal until 1960, and Algeria until 1962. And so, a distinctly French and British story that deals with World War II from an in-group, out-group perspective, without dramatizing the effects of colonial history, is missing a prime opportunity to establish the real-world structures and hierarchies shackling the soldiers at Dunkirk, which were much more rigid, and would’ve made for more powerful dramatic fodder.
Granted, the production was still putting out last-minute casting calls for local Indian and Senegalese background actors as little as 10 days prior to shooting. One might be able to chalk this lack of historical framing up to a lack of available extras — however, the film’s focus only on white main characters serves as a reminder of how potent its story of transcending in-group, nationalist survival instincts might have been had it, say, been able to dramatize a historical element like the segregation of Indian troops from their British superiors. It would have fit right in with the story being told. Transposing this element of segregation onto a story of white characters feels historically dishonest, as does the whitewashing of the merchant and civilian vessels which eventually came to the soldiers’ rescue, a quarter of which were operated by Indians and East Africans.
This historical whitewashing doesn’t make it a bad film; the actual number of soldiers it centers on is small to begin with, but its blinkered focus does serve to reinforce an ugly form of imperial nostalgia. It props up the kind of British historical grandeur that continues to permeate these military stories — like 2018 Churchill hagiography Darkest Hour, set contemporaneously — without confronting or even acknowledging the colonial oppression that often went hand-in-hand with protecting the British empire. If anything, it makes Dunkirk a far less complex film than it could have and perhaps should have been, from a narrative standpoint.
However, there’s also plenty of complexity to be found in the film’s non-linear construction, starting with how it frames the passage of time.
Where prior Nolan works like Inception and Interstellar explained their time dilations through dialogue — the relativity of time was a plot mechanic that connected multiple timelines — Dunkirk presents its keys up front. A more “realistic” film, it establishes, through on-screen text, that its Mole, Sea and Air segments will unfold over the course of about one week, one day and one hour respectively.
The film presents three real-world elements of Operation Dynamo: the stranded soldiers, requisitioned civilian vessels, and the British Royal Air Force. In doing so, it dramatizes three vastly different experiences in war, and three different physical realities in which they take place, each with their own unique relationships to time. For the soldiers on land, who await salvation that may never come, the film’s 106-minute runtime feels painfully stretched. Key scenes have Tommy, Alex and Gibson simply sitting by the water, waiting for rescue while those around them give up hope.
Those same 106 minutes span about a day for Mr. Dawson, his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their teenage handyman George (Barry Keoghan). They spend much of the film’s runtime on the water, though at no point do they come close to making landfall. The film never frames their physical proximity to Dunkirk beach. Instead, they seem to float infinitely, in an in-between space as other characters move nearer toward them. On the water, it can be hard to tell exactly how fast you’re moving against the current; paradoxically, even forward momentum can feel like stillness, adding to the desperation with which Dawson attempts to carry out his mission.
And finally, the timeline in the air sees Farrier, Collins (Jack Lowden) and their commander (voiced by Michael Caine) racing against the clock. Their battle is not only with the Heinkel bombers, but with their limited fuel — which they need to conserve for a return journey — and with gravity. This section is in a constant state of free-fall, framing the entire film as one continuous climax.
For the soldiers on the beach, for whom time has no end, escaping onto the Channel is a vital reprieve. On multiple occasions, Tommy, Gibson and Alex board vessels meant to take them out to sea, as if they’re attempting to break into the “middle” timeline. But each time they do, they’re prevented by bombs, torpedoes and fellow Britons forcing them back onto land — a space where days blend into nights as they wait.
Fittingly, Farrier’s key moment of dilemma (and Collins’ moment of rescue from drowning) both involve breaking into the middle timeline as well. The characters on land and in the air are engaged in a battle with time itself, desperate to escape time moving either too slowly, or far too quickly. And so, floating in the Moonstone’s relative stillness is a moment of relief for anyone crossing over into this middle section — whether Collins, the once land-locked soldiers, or the shivering, shell-shocked officer played by Cillian Murphy.
The film uses Murphy’s character to further establish time’s harsh, unforgiving impact. We first meet him when he’s rescued by Dawson, but later in the film, we’re also shown his prior interactions with Tommy, Gibson and Alex — a memory of sorts, but one unfolding in the Mole timeline’s outstretched present. In this nighttime “flashback,” his brief moment of screen time portrays him as a much livelier, more jovial man than when we first saw him (after the ship he eventually boards is attacked by a U-boat). The intervening events have robbed him of some vital part of himself. And though we don’t see the attack that stranded him, all subsequent assaults on our characters begin to carry more weight, now that we know what’s at stake and what might await them on the other side, even if they survive.
However, more than just presenting three timelines moving at different speeds, what makes Dunkirk feel like a complete, harmonious story (albeit one with jagged wartime edges) is the specific ways those timelines coincide. Like the “kicks” in Inception — a film where the simultaneity of action is vital to the plot — Dunkirk’s peaks and valleys are made to align through meticulous cross-cutting, even though they unfold hours, even days apart. Moments of failure, desperation, and victory not only correspond across all three timelines, but are made to feel like they impact one another as well. Collins’ heroic antics in the air, for instance, lead to him being stranded at sea, and to Dawson’s own heroism while rescuing him; shortly thereafter, Collins and Dawson work together to rescue the stranded soldiers as the film reaches its first apparent climax.
During this scene, Farrier turns around to attack a German bomber plane, which has its sights set on the characters in the water, just as Collins pulls Tommy aboard the Moonstone. The young soldiers from the beach and the RAF pilots have both crossed over into the “middle” timeline, as all three stories culminate. A second climax arrives soon after, when Farrier glides over the beach, attacking a German fighter plane before it bombs Commander Bolton on the mole below. Meanwhile, the Moonstone narrowly dodges fire from an oncoming plane as well.
It’s unclear whether the plane Dawson evades is the same one Farrier attacks after his engine shuts down. But it’s meant to feel like it is. The film cuts directly from one fighter narrowly missing the Moonstone to another being gunned down over the mole much later. This cut even maintains visual direction and momentum between the planes, with two moments of victory climaxing in unison; all three timelines continue to converge emotionally, even though logistically they’ve crossed through one another.
Once again, Nolan creates the illusion of simultaneity to deliver a rousing climax — though what also assists in creating this illusion is the film’s expert soundscape; not only the overpowering sound mix, which makes bullets and missiles roar and tear through the film’s very fabric, but the eerie score by Hans Zimmer, which plays a trick similar to the film’s overlapping narrative structure.
A Score in a State of Climax
The relationship between time and music in Nolan’s films is particularly notable in Inception. Sleeping characters are alerted to the end of a dream when someone plays Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je ne regrette rien”; in these dreams, time appears to run more slowly, so Zimmer’s score during climactic moments takes after a slowed-down version of Piaf’s song. The result is potent and ethereal, but it’s an isolated phenomenon within the film. Dunkirk, meanwhile, takes a similarly cerebral approach over its entire runtime.
Of Zimmer’s six collaborations with Nolan, Dunkirk may feature his most thrilling musical work. Not only does he re-use the motif of a ticking clock — as it happens, the ticking in question was recorded from Nolan’s own wristwatch — he also uses a Shepard tone. This auditory illusion has appeared in several Nolan films, from the held notes of David Julyan’s The Prestige score, to the rising mechanical whir of the Batpod in The Dark Knight. But here it forms a key structural and thematic blueprint.The Shepard tone, named after cognitive scientist Roger Shepard, is achieved by overlaying three tones separated by an octave each, all rising along a musical scale. As the highest-pitched tone fades out, the lowest-pitched tone fades in, before the series begins again. However, to the human ear, this doesn’t sound like the sequence resetting; instead, our brains interpret it as the tone rising for perpetuity.
This effect can be heard in compositions throughout the film, beginning with opening track “The Mole.”
The result is a score that feels like it’s always building in intensity, but this principle wasn’t just applied by Zimmer. Nolan claims to have written and structured the film with the Shepard tone in mind, an approach clearly visible when one deconstructs the relationship between its three timelines. Like the Shepard tone, the edit jumps between three parallel stories, each rising in intensity. As it hops between them, the film’s bigger picture feels like it’s in a constant state of climax, anchored by the extended denouement that is its “Air” section, even though the other two timelines have their own narrative ebbs and flows.
An early scene, in which Tommy and Gibson attempt to board a ship by carrying an injured soldier, lasts about four minutes. For all of those four minutes, the score appears to rise in both pitch and tempo (as it did during Interstellar’s water mountain scene), turning each subsequent hurdle for the characters into its own little climax. Simple acts during this foot chase, like slipping past the British officer holding the French soldiers back, or walking a thin plank across a damaged section of the pier, are imbued with rip-roaring intensity on par with any major action scene in Nolan’s films.
The final section of this “chase” merely involves Tommy and Gibson running from a recently drawn gangplank to one that’s still lowered, just a few meters away. But the score reaches its crescendo here. It’s coupled with diegetic sounds like the cheers of nearby soldiers and the urgency of the ship’s ringing bell, so these final few moments become chaotic.
The Best Movies of the Decade (2010-2019)
Maintaining this feeling of chaos throughout the film is no easy feat. From a visual standpoint, it also required a level of finesse that Nolan’s films felt like they were missing in previous years, but a level they were also building to over the course of his career. Finding cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema appears to have been a vital part of that journey.
Capturing Chaos and Intimacy
As Patrick Willems notes in his video on Nolan’s use of IMAX, the director’s early films had a simple, logistical approach to visual storytelling. Each shot was focused on relaying a singular piece of information. The movement of his camera — that is, the few times his camera did move — was geared more towards subtly establishing mood, like tracking sideways during intriguing conversations or keeping up with subjects in motion, and less towards the shot itself being used to obscure or to reveal, let alone a given shot changing in any meaningful way while it plays out.
It’s a precise approach that gels with Nolan’s precise approach to time, but until films like Interstellar and Dunkirk, rare were the moments in which one could find even a lateral pan to reveal something, or a shot moving through the space or between two characters. Even the number of times the camera racks focus over Nolan’s career can be easily counted — a mere six prior to Inception! The label of “cold and clinical” is often misapplied to his narrative content, but if one were to foist it upon the logistical aesthetic of his first few features, it wouldn’t be unfounded (even if that aesthetic stems from precision in editing).
But these recent collaborations with Hoytema — Interstellar and Dunkirk — have also seen Nolan layer practical effects all through the background and foreground. These tangible elements are an intrinsic part of each chaotic environment, rather than the central focus of a single shot or stunt in an otherwise ordinary setting (the way they’d been in films like The Dark Knight). In space, and in war, the surroundings are just as challenging and dangerous as any human antagonist, so Nolan holds his shots longer and frames them wider, allowing us to absorb more of the characters’ world.
A key beach scene toward the beginning of Dunkirk makes the march of death feel inevitable. In closeup, Tommy covers his head while bombs are dropped closer and closer to him, advancing from background to foreground, killing scores of his fellow soldiers along the way, out of focus and in the distance. Quentin Tarantino hailed it as one of the greatest shots in war movie history. But death also creeps up on the characters in more subtle, more intimate ways.
Nolan’s stories move, often unrelentingly, with few moments to stop and ponder. That is, until Dunkirk, in which one entire timeline — “The Mole” — is dedicated to time feeling outstretched, despite the film’s overall climactic feel. It features grim shoreside interludes, often intercut with shots of the beach which Hoytema captures with wide lenses and deep focus, as if the sand were expanding infinitely. Soon after, scenes like Tommy, Gibson and Alex sitting along the water see the camera pushing-in slowly and racking focus from a rear group shot, to an over-the-shoulder of a man shedding his gear and walking into the sea, capturing the trio’s proximity to his hopelessness.
When this angle is reversed, a similar effect takes hold. The camera pushes in on a group shot, until it goes tighter and tighter, into a two-shot on Tommy and Gibson, eventually pushing its way into a closeup capturing Tommy’s reaction to the man’s apparent suicide. The camera guides us, slowly and methodically, through Tommy’s internal struggle to keep hope alive, as the score seems to echo endlessly. Zimmer’s composition “The Tide” recedes and advances like the sea, as we push in slowly on another officer (Michael Fox) talking about bodies returning to the shore; the camera glides towards him like a creeping wave, bringing with it the fear of death.
Moments in which the camera edges towards each closeup are necessary to ground the pulsating action in a definite, desperate human perspective, shot against wide-open surroundings that feel desolate and grey. But when the film is at its most chaotic, it shifts gears rapidly, often employing shallow focus in crowded frames. In the torpedo scene aboard the rescue ship, particularly when the torpedo strikes, the camera lands on a crowd of people, spread from foreground to background, as the set shakes violently from side to side. The long lenses here flatten the image and exaggerate lateral movement, not only making the impact feel enormous, but capturing in detail the ripple effect of this impact in all directions.
In other timelines, like in the air, the chaos stems not from the camera moving loosely within space, but from being locked on its axis, fixed to the bodies of the airplanes (a method we saw Hoytema employ briefly in the opening scenes of Interstellar). Whether mounted to the inside of a cockpit rig to capture pilots’ faces, or latched onto the side of actual Spitfires — capturing tails, wings and noses against the vast open sky — the tactile feel Hoytema brought to Interstellar is re-fashioned here, orienting us within a world where mere proximity to these details feels dangerous.
Each bolt of the plane’s body is hyper-visible on 70mm IMAX film. Every vibration signals a sharp turn; every sudden jolt under enemy fire feels like being struck by a bullet. Every time a ship overturns, we’re locked onto its axis as the water rises sideways and the camera tilts along with the rotating set. There’s tangible danger to every action set piece, rather than a feeling of excitement; it’s more Titanic than Pearl Harbor, more about unrelenting loss than inflicting damage.
However, mounting the camera to the body of a plane also offers a sense of serenity after Farrier reaches the beach. Tension remains, but it slowly recedes as we see him manually lower his landing wheels. These shots of Farrier’s plane capture not only the sky, but the sand below and the waves caressing the shore — as if all three timelines, air, land and sea, now exist in harmony. The score eases up as well, replacing rising Shepard tones with hopeful melodies that quickly dissipate — as if silence is the only escape. Elsewhere, the ticking clock finally ceases, as Tommy falls asleep on a train.
Although, when he awakes, things aren’t as simple as having escaped the carnage.
The Cost of War
As Dunkirk comes to a close, it does so with scenes that now feel like a staple of Nolan’s films: a closing montage of characters reckoning with events, and with lies they’ve had to tell, as voiceover binds their stories together. This first appeared in The Prestige, followed by The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar; in Dunkirk, the choice of closing narration is a version of Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech to British Parliament, paraphrased to highlight the conflicted nature of the events.
Tommy reads the address to Alex from the morning’s paper, as the young Highlander hangs his head in shame. Churchill calls the battle at Dunkirk a “colossal military disaster,” but the paper skips forward to a vital line from later in the address: “But there was a victory inside this deliverance.” Alex, who could barely look a passerby in the eye just seconds ago, now looks up to see that same civilian offering him celebratory drinks, which he graciously accepts. In this moment, his entire outlook on the hellish battle has been reoriented, through the power of words that shift its narrative framing.
However, there’s also a lurking uncertainty to this re-framing. Where the white lies in previous Nolan films felt like final outcomes of each plot, the idea that “survival is victory” — a tagline seen on the movie’s posters — is challenged throughout the story. Tommy, for instance, accepts that Gibson needs to be sacrificed so that he and the other British soldiers can live, but the price of survival doesn’t sit well with him. “I’ll live with it,” he says. “But it’s wrong.”Victory or not, the truth of survival in war is that it comes at a cost. The PTSD-afflicted soldier who Peter and Mr. Dawson brought aboard the Moonstone survived, but what was left of him? Peter even lies to him to shield him from the fact that he accidentally killed George; would this soldier, now a shell of his former self, already wracked by the guilt of having injured George, have been able to bear that burden?
Back on land, Peter disguises the news of George’s accidental death, and has the papers report that he died heroically. When Mr. Dawson sees the story the next morning, he and Peter share an uneasy look. Perhaps George will be hailed a hero by his father and his teachers, people he hoped to finally impress. But Dawson and Peter know the real story, and the real cost of war, having lost not only George, but Peter’s fighter pilot brother the previous year.
The film’s closing images speak to the duality of canonizing survival as a victory when it exacts such a heavy price. The screen fades to black on an image of Farrier’s burning plane, standing defiant after his capture. The film ends here, for all intents and purposes — but it momentarily turns back on to show us one last disquieted moment. Tommy looks up at a celebrating Alex, but he himself seems unconvinced. The final few frames, before the screen cuts to black once more, are of Tommy dropping his gaze, as if hanging his own head in shame.
Nolan’s characters have often engaged in forms of self-delusion, whether constructing and performing hyper-masculine identities (Following, Batman Begins and The Prestige), or lying for a supposed greater good (Insomnia, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises), or even trying to “edit” their own memories (Memento, Inception and Interstellar). The Dunkirk evacuation is deeply embedded within Britain’s cultural memory, a story that exists at a cross section of these aforementioned ideas, between the prowess bestowed upon soldiers, the idealized self-mythology of Britain circa World War II, and the horrors of colonialism either forgotten or ignored.
Nolan has even commented on how differently the French look upon the events of Dunkirk — as a source of shame, since it preceded Nazi occupation — while the British tend to look upon it more favourably. It’s considered a point of national pride, despite 3500 of their soldiers being killed, with an additional 40,000 being captured (not to mention the deaths of a thousand Dunkirk civilians, whose lives Tommy can be seen rummaging through when the film begins). Rather than presenting the events as victorious outright, the film’s closing moments seem to wrestle with that rosy view of history.
As Tommy reads the final words of Churchill’s speech, Alex, now distracted by all the cheering, asks him to repeat a specific line. He does: “We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be.” The first time we hear this line, the camera is focused on Alex’s joyful release. The second time, it captures Tommy’s uncertainty. He continues reading Churchill’s closing words, which are juxtaposed not with the celebration outside, but with bodies and helmets left behind on Dunkirk beach. It’s hard not to wonder if that cost is worth it.
Siddhant Adlakha is a filmmaker and film critic based in Mumbai and New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @SiddhantAdlakha.