Spoilers ahead! If you haven’t seen it, don’t read this, go see it.
And... this isn't the masterclass - the movie is.
Three journeys. One takes a week, another takes a day, the third takes an hour.
All of them culminate in one place, at a single moment in time. One of these journeys IS the climactic event - the arrival of the fleet of quotidian, diminuitive ships, that packs a raw emotional punch. The quiet nobility of sailors, glimpsed in profile, dwarfed by the Navy destroyers, heading for doom …
How do you deliver three stories or perspectives in a compelling way and still save your best for last?
This is a storytelling challenge that Dunkirk answers in a unique and seamless way. I can think of other approaches to it, episodic, portmanteau etc., but I can’t think of one that does it better. Christopher Nolan, is of course a virtuoso of non-linear storytelling. In Memento, Inception and Interstellar, the non-linear game of time and all it’s implications are overt and instrumental to the protagonist’s journey. I’d argue this skill is wielded with the greatest effect in Dunkirk.
In Dunkirk however, the unconventional structure plays a different role. Here, it allows the stories separated by time, to be told in a conventional way, but without any of the predictability that this implies.
All timelines begin in concert. As events progress, we begin to recognise people, objects, locations that we’ve seen moments before on the beach and their aftermath that could only have occurred hours or days later. Rashomon-style alternate viewpoints of repeating events aid this effect, layering-in new information from these new perspectives. It’s been done before but not quite like this.
With minimal dialogue, the film uses it’s own semiotics to clue us in. Like a magic trick, you watch it all unfold, follow it scrupulously, yet don’t see the sleight of hand until the prestige is upon you. An intellectual puzzle that plays out emotionally.