I was initially hesitant to watch Dunkirk, given that it seemed like Christopher Nolan being as Nolan-y as possible. Which, after The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, wasn’t terribly enticing. The Dark Knight Rises was long on ideas and short on smooth implementation. Interstellar too had big ideas but lacked the characterization they needed to land. Dunkirk seemed like it could be more of the same: Nolan being self-indulgent to the point of breaking. All concepts, no substance.
To my delightful surprise, Dunkirk was actually quite excellent. It grounds Nolan’s concepts in a straightforward narrative that allows his strengths as a director to really shine. Even if you don’t really know what’s going on in the beginning, so long as you’re willing to trust him and his movie, things make sense.
But that’s the big If. If you spend the first half-hour of Dunkirk trying to figure out what’s going on, you’re going to have a rough go at it. What’s important is what Nolan tells you: that guy running through the street is English, wants some water, and wants to get across the channel. There’s also a fighter pilot in a dogfight and a civilian volunteering to sail the channel on a rescue mission. You don’t really need to know much more than that, and none of the characters get developed much further. But it’s not important. Over the course of Dunkirk, Nolan crafts a narrative around a particular moment that borders on impressionistic. Dunkirk asks that you watch it on its level, to trust that Nolan knows what he’s doing. Doing so lets you get swept away in the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation, with the movie’s interlocking time periods making themselves clear over time. Don’t overthink it.
There’s an amount of trust that the audience has to put in when watching a movie (or really, consuming any story), namely that if we get invested in this story, it will have been worth it. Something like Dunkirk may seem obtuse at the onset, but you’re trusting Nolan to make sense of it.
Which brings me to Star Wars. The start of A New Hope has you following a couple of droids walking around a desert for a solid chunk of time. You know the droids’ names, sure, and you know there are good guys and bad guys in space from the very first few minutes, but that’s really about it. For all intents and purposes, this seems like it’s going to be a terribly dull movie about actors in metal suits walking in a desert.
If you trust that George Lucas knows what he’s doing, you end up meeting Luke Skywalker and get sucked into an epic battle between good and bad. Y’know, Star Wars. But to get there you have to trust that these droids in the desert have a purpose and aren’t just there for their own sake.
Of course, sometimes that trust can be broken. Let’s talk about Crazy Rich Asians, which has become my go-to now for bad narrative. Throughout the first couple hundred pages we’re led along to a lot of places without a lot of plot, but there’s the trust that it’ll be worthwhile. Maybe we’ll meet some interesting characters, maybe we’re in for some exciting drama. We’re waiting for it, whatever it may be. Thus it kinda sucks when Kevin Kwan’s novel suddenly culminates in an awkward fizzle reliant on characters we don’t really know and a relationship we’re not really sold on. All that trust has been wasted. And I’m left gaping in disappointment at this book.
One of the best things about stories is getting sucked into them, and letting them work their magic. That takes an amount of trust that ought to be rewarded. Just gotta let go. In stories like Dunkirk, it pays off.