The Narrative of Dunkirk

In 2017, writer-director Christopher Nolan released his much anticipated war outing ‘Dunkirk’ which polarized audiences worldwide right from the moment ‘go’. One group, to which I belonged, hailed it as a work of imaginative triumph and as an instant classic, while the other group criticized it for the lack of a human core and labelled it a bland and pretentious by nature.

Much hate in particular was vented towards the non-linear narrative, which the naysayers of the film rendered needless and out-of-the-place within the subject matter of the film. This brief write-up of mine hopes to prove the contrary :-

  1. CONFLICT :-

Although I am aware of the exceptions to this rule (Walden, Man With A Movie Camera, Chelsea Girls to name a few), it goes without saying that almost of all the movies we see thrive on the progression from the establishment of a conflict to its resolution/non-resolution. They make the work engrossing and act as an invisible adhesive that joins scenes together by giving them a route of focused and logical progression. The fracturing of time ‘is’ the conflict of Dunkirk with its incoherence prodigiously utilizing our inherent need to juxtapose the events in linearity so as to draw us into the work. Many have argued that Nolan should have rather opted for a straightforward, linear narrative, but they do so in complete ignorance of what the film hopes to accomplish in the first place – portraying war through a collective consciousness rather than an individual one. A conflict situation in the context of Dunkirk would have only emanated in a linear narrative had it been approached from an individual perspective (say The Pianist) or a battalion perspective (like Saving Private Ryan), but doing so would be completely at odds with the crux of the movie. The nature of the narrative acts a syntax here doing what Rosebud does in Citizen Kane, molding into a cohesive whole what would otherwise have been hanging threads, full of potential but no viable means of exploring it with.

2. NATURE :-

Dunkirk is a work epic in its scope and fittingly, so are the antagonists at play in it – land, water, air. Less is inflicted on the Allied forces by the ‘enemy’ compared to the hindrances the elements of nature bring to the fore. The non-linear narrative enhances the feeling of entrapment omnipresent in the film by creating the sense that all events are materializing at the same time, which contributes to the development of an aura that all the elements of nature have risen up together at the same time, up in arms to prevent the escape of the soldiers stranded at Dunkirk. It levels the stakes to an unparalleled high which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.

3. TIME :-

As a medium, cinema lets us fracture time, elongate it and more importantly in this case, compress it. The evacuation of Dunkirk is so massive in its scope and so distant in its varying geographical settings that to have to make this film with a linear narrative would have meant risking a runtime mirroring a Tarr or Diaz film, a risk Nolan couldn’t afford to take considering the production values riding on the film. More importantly, the non-linear narrative helps put a clock on the events, menacingly ticking louder and clearer with every passing scene. Nameless these soldiers remain, but the clocks act as a connective tissue making them human and knowable to us, causing us to care almost beyond bearing about their fates and in process, transfixing us to the screen, watching in fear of what might happen to them. And us.

An In-Depth Analysis Of Whiplash ( Spoiler Alert !)

If you read my reviews, you may know about my love for the critically-acclaimed 2014 movie ‘Whiplash‘. Since I live in India, I got to see Whiplash in 2015 after its Oscar glory gave it much required publicity. I lamented on the fact that I got to see this only in 2015 when the whole world had seen and was raving about in 2014. Whiplash was on everybody’s 2014 top 10 movies list, including that of my favourite film critic Chris Stuckmann’s list, in which ended up on the No.2 position. But since I saw it in 2015, I will definitely include it in my 2015 list in which it will most probably get the first position.

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Why ? Because Whiplash, in my opinion is one of the greatest films ever made. If you have checked the  ‘About Me’ feature on my blog, you may have noticed that Whiplash is fifth on my list of the Top 10 Greatest Films Ever Made, and if you haven’t, here’s the link : . Now, you may say that I am exaggerating. That I am just a stupid teenager who doesn’t know crap about movies and will include any good movie that he has seen to his ‘Great Movies’ list. With all respect, I am not.

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This is a great movie, from the start to the end. This a movie that people are gonna look 25 years from now and say ‘That is a classic’. This will be on every ‘Great Movies’ list. Damien Chazelle will probably be where Quentin Tarantino is right now. (or where Shyamalan is right now, let’s hope that not happens). This will be helmed as one of the greatest independent features ever made. Reservoir Dogs is considered as ‘The Greatest Independent Film Of All Time’. But, that is the position that Whiplash will occupy after 25 years. And fortunately, I seem to sense it now. That’s why it occupies that position on my list.

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So today, my best friend payed me an unexpected visit to celebrate the first price I acquired in my extempore competition, and since I had nothing to entertain him or me, I turned to Whiplash, the movie that I never get tired of watching. After watching the movie, I looked up my review of  Whiplash, which also happens to be the first movie I reviewed as well. I am sure that many of you will find it very juvenile in its nature, so read it only if you haven’t watched the movie.

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So, a short prep. Whiplash is about Andrew Neiman, a jazz drummer who wants to become one of the greats. And when he is selected for a studio band, he thinks it is his first step towards greatness. But it may well become the last step as well if he doesn’t hold up against the psychological torture by the band’s curator, Terence Fletcher.

This film obviously deserves a second viewing, but I gave it its ninth viewing yesterday and I found many elements hidden deep within this movie. So let’s get started :-

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First of all, you may wonder why Andrew was selected. Throughout the film, one thing is apparent, Fletcher wants complete control. That’s why I think he avoids socializing and all that. He has a created a little world for himself where he is the God, where he can impose control over people. He tests his control everyday. When he enters the class, everybody has to stand up. When he moves those fingers and gives those signals, everyone has to start at the right time. That’s what attracted him to Andrew, because in their first encounter Andrew doesn’t listen to him. Nor does he stand up when Fletcher enters the room. He even begins drumming without Fletcher’s cues. He was selected just to grill him and mould him into one of his subjects.

I too in my post regarding the nominees and winners of Oscars 2015 ( criticized the Academy for giving the Oscar for Best Editing to Tom Cross for Whiplash instead of Sandra Adair for Boyhood. I sill stand-by that statement, Sandra Adair just proves why she is my favourite editor in Hollywood with that movie. But, I can now clearly see why the Academy might have come to their conclusion about this category.

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There is a scene in which Fletcher auditions Andrew, Ryan and Tanner for a rigorous 10 hours. So, the general perception we concur from that scene is that the audition lasted for only one hour because our only reliable source of time in those scenes were the occasional shots of the clock. But, Tom Cross put in an extra scene, a completely unrelated scene in the flick with an exterior view of the exit of the Conservatory to show that it was night. Sheer brilliance !

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Now, the first thing that I think attracted Fletcher towards Neiman is that he is a lot like him. Take into consideration the restaurant sequence of Andrew and Nicole. Andrew grills her, in a controlled way, and enforces a superiority complex in their relationship. He wants dominance because he ain’t got nothing from his family which constantly downplays his drumming. He forces Nicole to blurt out the truth that she chose her university just because it was the only one that let her in, while he chose his because it was the best music school in the country. Also, Andrew too considers everyone else lower than him. The standing testimony is when Ryan is given Andrew’s part, and he just vents his anger and calls him Johny Utah while in the next shot, Fletcher too calls him as Johny Utah.

And the ending ! Forget the drum solo, look at the meaning. It gave me a chill when I understood it in its entirety. Fletcher wins ! Now you are like ‘What the fuck is this guy talking about ? That asshole was drummed up his ass by Miles Teller !’ No, he wasn’t. Fletcher never had the potential to be great. But, in his conscious he was already great, he just wanted the world to admit it as well. Since he couldn’t prove this as a pianist, Fletcher employs another method – to be a kingmaker. That is the whole point of the ‘Bird’ story. As you may remember, early into the movie, Fletcher narrates to Andrew a story about how Charlie Parker became the Bird only after Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head.

That’s what happened here as well. He made Andrew defeat him. He made Andrew great. He escalated Andrew to the position of Charlie Parker, which in turn, escalated him to the position of Jo Jones. He created such a scenario that wherever Andrew’s name will be taken, he will also be remembered.

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That’s what that smile was about. Both, Andrew as well as Fletcher acknowledged the actual truth. It was a paradigm shift in both their roles. But don’t be sad because Fletcher wins, because in a way Andrew too wins the bout.

I don’t know if what all I said is right or wrong, but there is one thing I know for sure and that is the fact that Whiplash is one of the best movies of the decade, and I would say one of the greatest movies ever made. It is an incendiary masterpiece, which I foretell that people, after 25 years will shout and say, ‘ That was THE MOVIE ! ‘


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