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.

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Decisions

Men are made of decisions. It is a commonplace that the little decisions are what make a man, adding together to become the habits of a life. Likewise they are the training and practice for the big decisions. Every little thing mattters. Quite true.

But there is a flip side to that coin. The big decisions also matter, and they matter regardless of the little decisions that lead to them. What I mean is this: while little decisions may condition our responses to big choices, those big choices are also big chances to break old habits, to counteract earlier little decisions, and redifine the life which you lead. Habits can be broken in one fell swoop, a rousing moment of redemption, or a tragic crash of hubris. The little decisions matter, but they are not the final word.

Pardon my musings. This is the sort of interesting tangle people write stories to unsnarl.

But if you ask me, little decisions determining a life’s course is most definitely the norm. When a big decision confronts a man and he chooses a path to which he is not accustomed, something extraordinary has happened. Either a change of character has occured, or else a tension within the man’s character has been revealed. If the latter is the case, any amount of time will see the tension resolved. One cannot act in the grand moments according to one set of principles, and live one’s daily life according to another. At some point, the daily life will change, or else the grand moments will fall in line.

But if a grand moment, a big decision, reveals a sudden change of character, that is something miraculous. Outside of Christ, a lifetime of sinful habits (yes, I was thinking morally the whole time) will carve a rut in which a man’s soul may get stuck. Suddenly getting out of those ruts requires something strang and wonderful: a new heart. A man’s entire character must be changed, and that is not something he can do himself.

That is why, I think, such stories are fascinating. We want to see men with a certain character that is simply not good enough. We want to see these men struggle with life, and then see them presented with some particular conflict which draws up into one immensely climactic moment. At that moment, we want to see their character change, because we want to believe that such a thing is possible, and we want to know what it looks like. That dramatic change in character gives us hope.

That is why we love testimonies. That is why I love Augustine’s Confessions.