‘Dunkirk’ crosscuts three WWII storylines

Jake Coyle
Associated Press

A ticking sound runs throughout “Dunkirk” like an omnipresent reminder that time is running out for the 340,000 British and Allied soldiers marooned on the French beach and surrounded by Germans. It’s a tick-tock effect woven into the score that originated, fittingly, from Christopher Nolan’s own stopwatch.

Nolan is cinema’s great watchmaker: a filmmaker of Swiss precision capable of bending and shaping time to suit his grandiose, metronomed movies. Having already reversed time (“Memento”) and warped its fabric (“Interstellar”), Nolan set out to accomplish something different with “Dunkirk,” a movie that crosscuts three story lines (on land, sea and sky) from three different chronologies (one week, one day, one hour) during the famous evacuation.

“I wanted to experiment with a new rhythm,” said Nolan in a recent interview. “What I wanted to do was take what I call the snowballing effect of the third act of my other films, where parallel story lines start to be more than the sum of their parts, and I wanted to try to make the entire film that way, and strip the film of conventional theatrics.”

When “Dunkirk” hits theaters next Friday, audiences will find a landmark war film, but not a traditional one. Shot almost entirely with 70mm IMAX cameras from Nolan’s atypically spare 76-page script, “Dunkirk” is an often wordless, almost purely cinematic experience of dogfights in the air and close scrapes at sea. It’s an all-out assault — of tracking shots and montage — by one of the movies’ most maximal filmmakers.

“I loved it,” said Nolan of shooting at Dunkirk, where much of the production took place. “The reality of being there, of being in nature, frankly, it frees you up as a filmmaker to just use your eyes, use your ears, and absorb it and try to capture what speaks to you.”

For anyone even vaguely familiar with today’s Hollywood, it’s obvious enough that a silent-movie-inspired epic about the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk — a seminal moment of retreat and survival for the British, but an event not as dearly remembered outside the U.K. — isn’t your standard summer popcorn fare. But Nolan, the “Dark Knight” director, enjoys a rarified position in the industry, and the story of Dunkirk is one he’s wanted to tell since a dramatic sailing excursion across the English Channel in the ’90s.

“We’ve been talking about Dunkirk as a story for a very long time,” said Emma Thomas, Nolan’s wife and producer. “After ‘Interstellar,’ we were thinking about what we might do next and I think I reminded him of it and pointed him in the direction of a few books on the subject. He had a number of things that he was entertaining, but then he came back to me and said, ‘I think I see a way into this story.’ ”

Nolan acknowledges he feels “a massive responsibility” to use his stature to make something unique.

Having grown up in awe of big, bold films like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Nolan believes that “cinema is working at its absolute best is when it’s a grand-scale film that really works and does something you haven’t seen before. That for me is always the brass ring.”

“Dunkirk” is certainly that, especially when imposingly projected on IMAX screens. But such scale today is usually reserved only for supposedly more bankable franchise films. Such a path no longer holds much interest for Nolan. Though the 46-year-old director grew up a major “Star Wars” devotee, directing one doesn’t interest him.

Viewers may find themselves breathless from the heart-stopping opening only to find it essentially doesn’t abate until the end credits. The clock — Nolan’s watch — keeps ticking.

“The films I’ve made, I’ve tried to grab ahold of what in most films is a subtlety,” says Nolan of time, which he calls an under-appreciated element of the medium. “I’ve tried to take it and use it for the tool that it is.”

And in “Dunkirk,” time flies.


Opens Friday

Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language

Running time: 106 minutes

Read Detroit News Film Critic Adam Graham’s review in Friday’s On Screen section.