Almost every film Christopher Nolan makes has its own unconventional screenplay and editing structure, creating a unique experience with enhanced narrative tension, character development, and thematic exploration that you won't find anywhere else. After breaking down Memento, I thought I'd extend that same thinking to Dunkirk next and take a deep dive into the film's structure.
Dunkirk redefines war cinema through its innovative editing techniques that intersect three distinct chronologies: one spanning a week, another a day, and the third an hour. By analyzing the interwoven timelines, emotional resonance, and audience engagement facilitated by the editing, let's explore how Nolan masterfully crafts a visceral and immersive story of the harrowing evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk during World War II.
How Nolan Uses his Obsession with Time in Dunkirk
The editing of Dunkirk is what brings its narrative layering to the forefront. At a macro level, Nolan seamlessly interweaves the timelines for the audience to experience the events from multiple perspectives simultaneously. At a micro level, he chooses to cut between those scenes across each timeline that together build more tension and drama. This layering creates a rising momentum of intensified suspense, which is further heightened by Hans Zimmer's ticking stopwatch background score.
Nolan calls this the Snowball Effect -
"I wanted to write a script that braids together three storylines that are continually rising in anxiety and intensity; when one is peaking, the other is starting to build, and the third is entering the last phase of it."
Breaking Down Dunkirk on Premiere Pro
Everyone knows how Nolan didn't set out to make a war movie with Dunkirk, but a suspense thriller. He intentionally stayed away from blood to make sure it doesn't come across as an action movie. What he chose to embrace instead was a very convoluted way of telling a very simple story, so that he could make the thriller film he set out to (and praise the Lord he did). While it's obvious from the get-go that the three storylines are across different timespans, the way they are cross-cut from one to the other can make it a little difficult to follow. And so, the intersection points of each storyline become important milestones to keep track of the movie's chronology and to experience those incidents from different points of view.
Another crucial facet of the editing in Dunkirk is how it facilitates powerful parallelism. The film often juxtaposes scenes from different timelines, revealing thematic connections and creating suspenseful contrasts. This technique effectively integrates the narratives, building tension and compelling viewers to draw connections between seemingly disparate events.
Here's a quick re-edit I did on Premiere Pro that helped me understand some of the decisions behind the film's flow. The beige snippets on the timeline represent land (one week), the blue snippets represent sea (one day), and the cyan snippets represent air (one hour). In the first half of the film, it consistently cuts between all three timelines in a repetitive pattern, as you can see from the timeline. It's only in the second half when the transition from one storyline to another becomes more dynamic, based on the emotion of the scene and the intersection points of each timeline.
If Dunkirk were to have been edited in proper chronological order, its timeline would look something like this, with each marker in the second half highlighting an intersection point between the storylines.
As you can see, Dunkirk compresses time to heighten emotional intensity. The one-week storyline on the beach is marked by prolonged waiting, despair, and survival, effectively conveying the soldiers' anguish. In contrast, the one-hour storyline in the air creates a frenetic pace, mirroring the intensity of dogfights and adding to the film's visceral impact. The editing enables Nolan to manipulate time's passage, thereby modulating the audience's emotional engagement.
Dunkirk showcases the remarkable synergy between storytelling and editing, as Christopher Nolan skillfully employs temporal manipulation to craft a compelling, emotionally resonant, and thematically rich war film. The film's innovative approach to narrative structure, achieved through the intricacies of editing, offers viewers a multifaceted perspective on the evacuation's heroism and the human capacity for resilience. By interweaving timelines and guiding audience engagement, Nolan demonstrates how editing serves as a potent tool for creating an immersive and impactful cinematic journey through history's defining moments.