Math problems from Dunkirk

Director Christopher Nolan (and his wife, Emma Thomas, and brother, Jonathan Nolan) are known for making creative use of story structure in the films. See, for example, the reversed timeline of Memento, the 1:20 reality-to-dream timeflow of Inception, and the time dilations of Interstellar.

In his World War 2 film Dunkirk

., Nolan weaves three different story arcs that all coincide at the beach rescue near the end of the film.

  • For the soldiers on the beach, we start one week before the beach rescue.
  • For the family on the boat, we start one day before the beach rescue.
  • For the pilots in the air, we start one hour before the beach rescue.

All three of these stories are played out simultaneously for the film audience, and when we cut back and forth between the characters, we are seeing them move proportionally through their own timeline.

To have a consistent basis for comparison, let’s define x to be the percentage of the story complete, relative to the audience. So x=0 is the start of the stories, x=50 is halfway through the stories, and x=100 is the beach rescue, the point of convergence of the stories.

Complete the following problems and submit them in whatever form you’re most comfortable with (Word document, scanned PDF, screenshot, video/audio explanation, etc.).

  1. How would you represent the pace and flow of the three separate stories? (You may do so symbolically, graphically, tabularly, or some other way that makes sense to you.)
  2. Assume that, in terms of the actual events of Dunkirk, there was a large ship explosion out at sea 15 minutes prior to the beach rescue. When, in terms of story time (x), would each of the characters see the explosion?

Grading will be dependent upon thoughtful engagement with the problems — not necessarily correct answers. If you are unsure of your answers, that is okay, just let us know your thoughts and what it is you’re unsure about.

Posted in Uncategorized