Midway through DUNKIRK, I turned to my friend and said, “Wait, is that the plane from earlier? Are sea and air narratives about to intersect?” My friend scowled at me. “I have no fucking idea. Now shut up, I’m watching this.”
I’m not the only one who had a moment like that. Even my friend who worked on editing the movie admits that it becomes clearer on the second viewing. All that said, people remain involved through the movie. Even people who couldn’t track the movie chronologically through the first half of the story remained invested, interested and curious. DUNKIRK is a great example of how a strong rooting interest can carry an audience through a movie, even if they’re confused.
When we watch the movie, it cuts like Tommy/Dawson/Farrier/Tommy/Dawson/Farrier until the end, but chronologically most of the Tommy scenes happen earlier, and all of the Farrier scenes happen in the last hour of the week the story covers. As a result, the movie has a lot of dovetailing moments, a man Dawson meets early in the runtime is seen at Dunkirk (much later in the runtime, but chronologically earlier), we see the same planes get shot down from different angles, etc. It’s easy to get confused.
The only clue to Dunkirk’s non-linear timeline comes at the beginning, where we see the openings to the movie’s three storylines, and the only three title cards:
Trapped soldiers try to escape the Dunkirk beaches. Title: The Mole – 1 Week
A civilian prepares his boat to go rescue those soldiers: Title: The Sea – 1 Day
A pilot flies towards Dunkirk with his squadron. Title: The Air – 1 Hour
This supposed to decode the structure, but it confused a lot of people. Most notably, “the mole” refers to the long pier on the Dunkirk beach, but a lot of people think it refers to Tommy or Gibson, the soldiers on the beach. The structure is nonlinear, and it takes a lot of people off guard.
Owing to this, people can get confused by the structure. Despite this, the story remains gripping and involving throughout, even if you only understand the timeline halfway through (or in some cases not till the end). The reason for this is a clear rooting interest.
Dunkirk does a good job explaining things at the top: the English are surrounded and they have to get off the beach or they’ll die. It also involves the audience emotionally. We never see the Germans, but we do see the doomed bravery of the English and we want them to live. Tommy wants to get off the beach. Dawson wants to bring his little boat across the English Channel so he can rescue soldiers. Farrier wants to fly to Dunkirk to save soldiers.
Thus, the story becomes easy to track. We know what we’re rooting for (saving), we know how each mission helps accomplish that goal, and when something happens, it’s clear how that brings us closer to (or further from seeing that rooting interest realized. Farrier’s running out of gas? Oh no, he might not make it to the fight! Tommy’s on a boat? Hooray, he might survive! Tommy’s boat is sinking? Oh no, etc. Even when I’m confused (Why doesn’t anyone use a parachute? Why can’t the French guy swim away?) I remain invested in the story.
In writing, I’m often advising people to set up a clear character, clear stakes, and a clear goal. I advise this because those factors help you set up a rooting interest. If you choose to eschew blatant clarity, or the clearcut stakes that come with a properly set up three act structure, you’d better have a clear rooting interest. If the audience doesn’t know what to root for (or even what you’re hoping they’re rooting for), the story becomes impossible to follow.