Dissecting Dunkirk: Editing Impaired

So, I think I might have hated Dunkirk. I know, I know! I’m not being contrarian. I love much of Christopher Nolan’s work, but the detached and lifeless narrative left me cold and with no one to really root for. Yes, Nazi’s!, but they are invisible in this film, and even if they weren’t I wouldn’t have even really cared who they were shooting at outside Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden, pilots in arms. Why should I care about these people, beyond history tells me to? But that wasn’t even my biggest issue with Dunkirk, it was the editing.

Nolan loves to experiment with time in his narratives and Dunkirk is no exception.

The Mole. One Week.
The Sea. One Day.
The Air. One Hour.

These three title cards help set up the three narrative through lines of Dunkirk. The Mole refers to a breakwater wall used by the men on the ground as a makeshift dock and their stories trying to get off the beach. The Sea follows a civilian ship coming across the English Channel. The Air gives us a taste of the dogfights in the skies above the Mole and Sea. The time that follows each of those settings is also quite important, but I didn’t really process that until the film was almost over.

You see, those times refer to two things. One, about how long it would take you to get across the English Channel by those means if you were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, but also about how long each segment of their respective stories took place. Now, The Mole section seems to take place over two days in the film, not a week, but some soldiers did spend a week on the beach queueing up to try to get on a ship. The other two sections’ times are much more accurate in their length of story told, but this all had me very confused and frustrated while watching the film.

Why you might ask? Because all of these scenes are intercut among each other for the length of the film’s hour and forty-five minute run-time and things start getting weird about twenty to thirty minutes in. The Mole section is slowly fading into night, eventually pitch black outside, but we keep cutting the The Sea and The Air where things are bright as day. I was very much, all, WTF is going on. In hindsight, this editorial choice by Nolan and his team gains much clarity, but in the moment I was really thrown off by the continuity, at first, then eventually confusion settled in as I tried to figure out when and where the hell we were every time we jumped narratives.

Yes, this is a me problem. Maybe you are calling me dumb over the internet as you read this, for not clicking into the visual cues Nolan offered (I did start picking them up around the last third of the film where things start to coalesce and become more clear), but I was really discombobulated while watching the film and was thrown out of the picture every time we left one group for another. So, in hindsight, I can see this confusion being of my own errors in viewing, but I still have to ask myself; why did this have to be so damn convoluted?

To keep the tension alive is the first reason I go to in my head, but I don’t think the film needed this narrative trickery in order to sustain the dread. If you chronologically re-organize the film, I’m not buying it would lose any of its power to hold your attention or thrill. In fact, I think it would enhance the picture. Sure, seeing all of these separate pieces come together in the film’s final scenes was the high point of the film for me, but at what cost? If we would have watched everything that happened at The Mole before The Sea set off, we could have become invested and engaged in this group of soldiers trying to survive. We would have a firmer sense of their desperation and been anticipating the incoming help. Then, as the ships begin to cross the Channel, we get to know their story as we intercut among The Mole’s chronologically synced endeavors. And finally, as it all is coming to a head, the air force is finally called in and begin to try to save the day.

This is what happens in the film already, it has just been told in the most confusing way one can imagine. Instead of getting excited as the pieces come together, I was constantly trying to figure out when we just jumped to. Even once I realized what Nolan was going for, I still had a hard time grounding myself and, ultimately, couldn’t engage with what is happening as much as the director surely would have liked. And that’s a shame, because I still can’t be convinced this was the best approach to tell this story. I don’t see what it gained. Almost every scene in this film is constructed around a tense moment (and a driving score by Hans Zimmer), so why not just put all the pieces in order?

I just rattled off over 500 words on the distractions the editing caused me in Dunkirk, and I think that was my biggest hang up with the film. I just kept getting thrown out of the moment and never felt comfortable with what was happening. But, the action didn’t really do it for me either. Was this because of the editing too? Could I not connect with the action, like the characters, because I was constantly thrown off? I don’t know. But the film didn’t have a single great scene for me, and Nolan is usually someone who delivers greatness time, and time, again in his films. Did Nolan’s grounded setting take some of the wonder out of Dunkirk? Is Nolan’s brother missed more than we could ever imagine on scripting duties? Maybe, but I think if you fix the timelines you might have fixed the movie for me. At least we got some Tom Hardy dog fighting action!

As is, I think I need to see Dunkirk again, and I can report back whether knowing what the hell I am getting into enhanced my opinion of the film at all.

Or, maybe I just thought Atonement already did Dunkirk better?

No scene in Dunkirk tops that single shot by Joe Wright, by the way.

4 thoughts on “Dissecting Dunkirk: Editing Impaired

  1. How’d you come up with those numbers being the length of time it would take to cross to safety? Did you read that somewhere, or is this just a guess of yours? Those title cards are my biggest complaint about the film, thats for sure. But I definitely saw the editing much differently than you did.

  2. This is not a great film. I agree with the author Zac Oldenburg. It was extremely ambitious yet rarely effective in caputuring my emotion.

    The grand presentation in handheld 70MM was just disorienting and the story structure did not work for me. It is Editing Impaired.

  3. Atonement is great, especially that shot. But I still think it is safe to say you will start to love Dunkirk after a rewatch or two. I enjoyed the cross-cutting, it allowed Nolan to give the audience breaks from each narrative, and it kept me alert for context clues.

    I loved how Dunkirk avoided all the war film cliches. No monologues about having to get back to England to see a kid they haven’t met yet. No aircraft exploding as soon as they are shot. No scenes of German troops doing evil things. Just soldiers doing what they can to survive.

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