Right in Time: Nolan, Time, and Dramatic Tension

Stories have to be interesting. It can be any of a million things that draws us in and keeps us there, but there does have to be something. For action movies, it can be something as basic and primal as “will the hero survive?” People tend to be interested in not dying, and if someone is likable, we tend to be interested in their not dying too. But sometimes storytellers have something a little different in mind.

I went to see Dunkirk on opening weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. Christopher Nolan has always struck me as a guy who would be invested in the mythos of World War II, and I was very happy when I first saw the trailer. I came out of the theater even happier. As someone else said somewhere else, this is the movie Nolan was born to make.

Anyone familiar with the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the movie’s promotional material, is aware that the story is not going to be about defeating the Nazis in battle. The only victory we would see in this movie would be mere survival. That gave me a bit of pause, as I’ve always thought of Nolan as something more than a pessimist, and this sounded like it could be my great disappointment.

I was very pleased to be wrong. Within the first few minutes we are presented with three different perspectives, each of which is taking place across a different timeline, and will interweave to tell the story. One is that of a soldier on the ground, escaping Nazi gunfire, realizing that his safe haven is surrounded and pressed up against the ocean, and that there is little to no hope of escape. This starts several days before the evacuation. A second perspective is that of civilians taking their boat to Dunkirk on the day of the evacuation, rather than simply giving it up to the Navy as they had been told. Two of the three-man crew are too young to be soldiers. The third perspective is that of several pilots patrolling the skies in the hours just prior to the evacuation, including everyone’s favorite actor, the upper half of ­­­Tom Hardy’s face.

At first I took these three timelines as a mere novelty, just something Nolan likes to do. Partway through the movie, however, something happened that led me to rethink Nolan’s use of time, not just in Dunkirk, but in his entire body of work. Spoilers ahead.

At one point in the soldier-on-the-ground’s story, he joins up with the tattered remains of a Highland regiment. They are walking across the sand towards an abandoned boat that had been beached at high tide. They are far from the rest of the Allied soldiers, and once they are all inside, trying to determine if the thing will float, Germans begin using the hull for target practice. It is determined that the boat will float despite leaks, but they may have to get rid of some weight. One of the companions our POV soldier has picked up turns out to be a Frenchman who is trying to escape with the British soldiers, and the Highlanders debate getting rid of him so the boat will float.

Now in an ordinary telling, the source of dramatic tension, the thing that keeps us interested, is the question of survival. Will the boat float in the first place, and will the tide come in before the target-practicing Germans either kill off the people inside the boat on accident, or fill it so full of holes in the first place that it can no longer float? Nolan has already added a moral dimension to the Highlanders’ behavior, but we don’t even know if their decision here will make a difference in the larger question of survival.

But then we switch perspectives. Our pilot in the air is trying to protect a fleeing ship from German bombers. As he approaches, we a second boat nearby. It is the blue boat from the beach. It has tipped over and begun to sink, but there are men in the water fleeing from it to the ship our pilot is protecting. We know that they made it off the beach—the Germans did not kill everyone off or fill it so full of holes it would not float. They are halfway across the channel. They survived.

This shifts the source of dramatic tension. When we return to that timeline, we are no longer asking if they will survive, but what they will do to survive. Will they sacrifice the life of the frightened Frenchman to save their own, or will they leave Dunkirk as defenders of the weak? The source of dramatic tension is now the ethics of the situation. Through the use of his mixed-up timelines, Nolan has shifted our attention from the physical danger of the situation to the moral dangers and the character of these soldiers.

Someone else somewhere else said that Nolan is very interested in time. As I thought about this sequence from Dunkirk, and reflected on the other Nolan movies I’ve seen, I realized that this is only half true. Nolan is certainly interested in treating time in unusual ways in his stories, but I’m not sure that’s the focus of the stories themselves so much as it is a tool he is particularly adept at using. For Nolan, non-linear storytelling is a way of drawing attention to moral dilemmas rather than mere questions of survival.

After Dunkirk, two more examples come to mind. The first is Batman Begins. I recently got a pretty solid deal on twenty DVD’s, and this was on my list. It had been several years since I had watched it, and I never really appreciated it as much as the other two movies in the series, or the rest of Nolan’s work. This time I realized why.

The superhero genre is a staple of American pop culture, but for most of its history, especially in the 90’s, it has been targeted at children. These are people with silly names in unlikely costumes who fight improbable villains in defense of mythical cities. We don’t watch them for their realism, but for the very operatic strangeness that makes them so attractive to children. Given this, we expect the story to draw dramatic tension from the larger-than-life character of the villain and his insane schemes, or from the incredible powers of the superhero and the impossible odds he must overcome. If there is some deeper lesson to be learned, we expect it to be tied pretty closely to our hero’s gimmicks—Captain America tells us something about patriotism, Hulk about anger, the X-Men about being different, and Batman about nobless oblige or the social benefits of a healthy population of winged rodents.

Batman Begins is not interested in more gimmicky or straightforward lessons, and even less interested in being zany and larger-than-life. The man under the cowl is not George Clooney. And that’s why the first half of the movie does something very Christopher Nolan: it messes with the timelines.

Now, this is not Dunkirk. There very clearly a primary timeline, and the secondary timeline is easily labeled as a series of flashbacks, most of them more or less explicitly memories that Bruce is meditating on for pretty straightforward reasons. He has been living as a criminal, trying to understand their mindset, and he has been taken in by a shadowy organization that promises to teach him how to make criminals pay for what they do to society. Naturally, he thinks about the points in his life where he learned fear, where he saw what crime did, where he thirsted for vengeance, and where he learned that vengeance may not be enough.

But that’s interesting. In the past, I was always annoyed because it seemed to take forever for the story to go anywhere. But that’s because I expected a very different story than Nolan wanted to tell. He wasn’t worried about the existential threat against Batman or against Gotham. Survival was not the point. He was interested in justice. Why do people commit crimes? How do they get away with it? Who deserves justice? What does justice look like? Who is entitled to mete out justice? What methods should they use? The series of flashbacks combined with Bruce’s training by the League of Shadows does not draw attention to any particular villainous threat, but does ask us to look at these themes. By combining past events who outcome is already known with a present which does not noticeably advance for quite some time, Nolan shifts the dramatic tension to the ethical dilemmas Bruce faces, rather than threats to his city.

The third place I see Nolan using complex timelines to draw our attention away from mere survival and towards moral dilemmas is in Memento. This may seem a far more obvious example to those familiar with the movie. For those who are not, this is how the movie works: there are two timelines, one in black and white, and one in color. We switch back and forth between them. One is working backwards from end of the story being told, and one forward from its beginning. The two timelines will meet in the middle, and our climax will be the transition from one to the other.

The very structure of this plot looks like a test case for the interwoven timelines of Dunkirk or the extensive use of flashbacks in the first half of Batman Begins. We know early on who will live and who will die. We find out far more quickly than our protagonist exactly who can be trusted and who cannot. We know where the story is going. What we don’t know is why the protagonist has made the decisions he has. We don’t understand the moral landscape. By the time we reach the end of the movie, we understand the protagonist’s motivations and the motivations of the other characters, but our knowledge of whether he survives or not has not changed. Survival was never the point—the moral landscape was.

Now I am sure that Christopher Nolan is interested in time for other reasons. It is also without a doubt true that he is good at creating threats to the survival of his heroes, and having them confront these threats in interesting ways. He is certainly a good action director, and he is also a bit of nerd when it comes to thinking about time.

But I believe this is an established pattern that Christopher Nolan has. He uses nonlinear storytelling as a tool to draw our attention from more basic threats to survival and towards moral dilemmas. Realizing this not only opens up new dimensions in Nolan’s work, but leads to the consideration of non-linear storytelling more generally. How do other writers and directors use it? What are they drawing attention to? What potential sources of dramatic tension are they defusing?

For me, this is one more good reason to be interested not only in stories, but storytelling.

Whedon, Nolan, House, and Hope for the World

This past year or so I’ve been up to my neck in Joss Whedon. Firefly, Buffy, Angel, Avengers, references to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Must be the company I keep. After a while, you start to notice patterns in a guy’s work, start to work out what he believes about the world.

Hanging out with the same folks that got me into Whedon, I’ve also watched a lot of Christopher Nolan. He is a far better writer and director, with films like Inception, the Batman Trilogy, Memento, and the Prestige under his belt. I began to notice as well that while he takes himself far more seriously than Whedon, they hold certain things in common.

By now it’s obvious that I’m going somewhere with this, and I’ll just show you my hand. When I watched the House series finally, the theme clicked into place across that series and both bodies of work. All of them take a certain view of death, the meaning of life, and how we are to live in response to it.

House has always struggled with death, firmly believing that there is nothing after. Life, he believes, is meaningless and ends in meaninglessness. We’re just, as the now aging adage attests, ugly bags of mostly water. In the final episode this is brought into startling clarity. But his response is interesting: he keeps on living. In every episode, from the first to the very last, we are told never to give up. Objectively, life may have no purpose, but it’s still worth living, still worth giving a little bit of our own purpose.

To keep it short, we’ll stick with Whedon’s Buffyverse. In both Buffy and in Angel we are told, pretty explicitly, that this world is hell. Buffy knows that in contrast with the peace of death, life is not worth living. Angel has seen that there’s a little bit of hell in every person, some amount of darkness that they infect the world with. We’re trapped in a world of pain and darkness. But Whedon is one step above House, and a bit more theatrical. He insists not merely on keeping on living, but on fighting the evil, again and again, with every apocalypse, even if there is no final victory. And he expects his heroes, and heroines, to do so in epic style.

Christopher Nolan, sticking to film, is much more cinematic, and therefore requires a slightly different form of analysis. But take a while and you’ll notice the same thing. The Joker, in Dark Knight, is right that everyone has some amount of evil in them. Yes, a hardened criminal may find it in himself to throw a detonator overboard, but that won’t stop Gotham’s great hope from going evil, or the whole city from blaming Batman. In Inception and Memento, the truth doesn’t matter as much as the feeling. The world is hell, keep on moving, do the best you can.

There are differences, of course. Nolan is actually a bit more despairing, and he’s honestly more concerned with truth and subjectivity than he is with the meaning of life. House is just as much about whether people can change as whether this world is hell. Whedon doesn’t always care much about the literal truth of materialism and life after death as he does about despair, heroism, and redemption. But they all do have the common theme that the world ought to make us despair, but we can’t just give up.

As a Christian this is both frustrating and heartening. I’ll start with the heartening part. Despite the utter meaninglessness of the universes these men create, they refuse to live like it has no meaning. They are determined to struggle on, even half-heartedly, because they recognize that there is something good in this world worth fighting for. There is a reason to live, even if they don’t know what it is.

But it’s frustrating, because they never come to an answer. They tell us to fight, but their reasons are vague and empty. It’s all passion, emotion, and attachment to our dreams, with no concrete answers. This is because if they gave those concrete answers, if they were consistent, Firefly would end in a bitter Mal dying alone in despair somewhere in deep space. If Nolan was consistent, there would be no third Batman. If House was consistent, he would have overdosed on pain killers long ago.

You can see this tension in the way their heroes live. In the Buffyverse, nine out of ten times there is a romance, it will end in death or betrayal. And if it ends peacefully, the death and betrayal comes later. In House, every character careens from cold, cruel self-interest that cuts their neighbors, to a tough sort of love because if they have no friends, what is left to live for? And Nolan’s world is just dark.

This is not to say they don’t have heartwarming moments, or grand scenes of self-sacrifice. All of them do. But they can’t account for it. The heroes do this because they know it’s right, but according to their own view of the world, it’s not. There is no meaning in life, and without meaning, there’s no point in living one way and not the other.

I am frustrated because I am a Christian. These are skilled men who have done a lot to shape the world of entertainment, and they’re incapable of giving answers to the questions they have to ask. As a Christian, I know these answers. There is a God, not just a vague deity, but a Father better than the absentees of House’s world. He created a world that was perfect. Then, by our choice, all the pain entered into it that Angel sees, all the hypocrisy House points out, all the cruelty of the world that Nolan scripts.

But here’s the other side: Whedon is right. This hell still is worth fighting for. Not only that, but it has already been fought for. The ultimate apocalypse has already occurred. The hero did die, and saw the other side, and now he’s back. But unlike Buffy, he didn’t bring a demon with him. And unlike House, his return is not an ending. Unlike Nolan’s heroes, the victory he earned is real.

But purpose is more than past plot, it points towards an ending. It points at the happiness that Whedon pictures in every romance while it lasts, and that House ends with in so many hopeful episodes. According to the Gospel, Christ’s victory is spreading, making itself known, developing in this world. Eventually, death itself will die, and with it all the pain that sin brought into the universe.

And what is our purpose? What is the drive that keeps us going despite the pain? It’s that God is worth glorifying, and we’re built to do it. It’s that God’s creation is worth enjoying, and that’s what we’re made for. On a grand scheme, that’s enough. But on an individual level, the beauty of the Christian hope is that we all have a specific purpose. We have our own gifts to glorify God with, our own pleasures we take in his creation. We not only have purpose in general, we have specific, personal meanings.

But this leads to a different life than House’s self-interested dissolution and partying. We’re not just after our own pleasure. Drugs and sex with every woman we can get our hands on is not only a distraction, it begins to be wearying and painful. It loses meaning. But, as every hero shows in a moment of truth, self-sacrifice does give meaning. Living for others, for God’s own creations through which he is glorified, that is our code of conduct. That is how we live.

I have nothing but respect for the wonder and excitement and crazed insanity with which Joss Whedon crafts his worlds. I hope one day to achieve the tension and heartwarming moments of hope and humor House is capable of. One day I want to rock the writing world like Nolan rocks the box office. But all of them miss the Gospel. All of them ask the questions they cannot answer. The hope of a Christian artist is to be as good as the pagans, and better, but to offer a hope they can never match.

And, in my case, to pray these guys come to Christ. A Christian Joss Whedon could change the world. I hope one day he does.