Has Christopher Nolan Peaked With Dunkirk?

Stephan Cho - July 29, 2017

As one of the most celebrated figures in modern Hollywood filmmaking, Christopher Nolan doesn’t need any more praise.

Thanks to visually and structurally impressive—and absurdly profitable—epics like The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar, and most recently, Dunkirk, Nolan arguably has more free rein, both creative and financial, than any working Hollywood filmmaker today. This is perhaps most apparent in his latest film Dunkirk—a $100 million blank check of an art film made under the guise of a summer tentpole and big-boy war epic.

Much has been made of the fact that Dunkirk was shot in 70mm film on IMAX cameras, a pricey gamble given that few viewers will have the opportunity to pay over $20 to seek out the few theaters where Dunkirk is being screened in that format.

The Dunkirk evacuation of 1940 depicted in the film also comes from a point in World War II history largely overlooked in most American history curriculums, and the evacuation lacks the tidy heroics or resolution seemingly necessary to be valorized by American audiences. Unlike World War II epics by other major directors, like Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers or Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Dunkirk shares relatively few conventions of how that war is depicted in American cinema. Dunkirk is largely bloodless, with few examples of either the heroism or the human capacity for massive atrocity seen in many depictions of the war.

For better or for worse, Dunkirk is focused, rather, on recreating the experience of war: placing viewers directly into the chaos of the event, with little space to contextualize its larger implications or to catch so much as the names of fellow soldiers fighting next to you.

You never see the Germans in Dunkirk, and your reflections on the atrocities of war come from the visceral experience of witnessing it firsthand, as Hans Zimmer’s tick-tick-ticking score creeps in from the distance. Nolan’s procedural, highly visceral approach to war in Dunkirk has more in common with modern examples like Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker or Paul Greengrass’ United 93 than to the genre of self-consciously serious World War II epics. Yet Dunkirk is opening in the middle of July as both a summer tentpole and a serious contender for Academy Award consideration in the fall, whereas The Hurt Locker remains the lowest grossing Best Picture winner in Academy Award history.

At this point in his career, Nolan has the commercial caché to (quite literally) burn $5 million of Warner Bros. house money on a priceless Luftwaffe fighter jet. Unlike most filmmakers on his scale, however, Nolan also has a cult fanbase most charitably defined as “intense”, and at its most insufferable, as the film equivalent of J. Cole fans raving on about how “you need a certain level of intelligent’s” to understand his films.

Dunkirk is Nolan’s most pared down work, in terms of structural ingenuity and scope, since at least 2002’s Insomnia: the well-crafted but largely conventional psychological thriller that Nolan directed between the more widely celebrated Memento and Batman Begins. At 106 minutes, Dunkirk is even shorter than Insomnia, and save for its three converging timelines (this is a Nolan joint, after all), even more straightforward narratively. It is also, by far, the most precise expression of Nolan’s gifts as a filmmaker to date.

For detractors of Christopher Nolan’s earlier work, the refined focus of Dunkirk as a cinematic experience might help mask some of his most pervasive flaws as a filmmaker. Perhaps the historical resonance of the Dunkirk evacuations, and the real-world details of the historical record, have forced Nolan to pare down some of his excesses as a filmmaker, or at least excuses for them.

At his most oppressive, Nolan’s talents for large-scale spectacle and intricate plotting tend to curdle over into cacophony: the massive Hans Zimmer scores bludgeon any sense of emotional nuance present in the rest of his filmmaking, and the constant hand-holding exposition gets in the way of actual enjoyment of what’s happening on screen.

It’s admirable that Nolan is able to craft ‘puzzle-box’ films accessible even for viewers who don’t necessarily use terms like "sujet" or "totems of reality" to analyze blockbuster entertainment. However, despite what some of the more unsavory Nolan devotees on the Internet might claim in their efforts to flex their own intellectual dominance, it isn’t the cerebral aspects of Nolan’s work that make him seem inaccessible for some viewers.It is, rather, the fact that his films sometimes hinge entirely on the complexity of their own construction; there’s little space for details like compelling character arcs or dialogue when they get in the way of Nolan’s plotting. Dunkirk, thankfully, dispenses with its interweaving timeline structure early on in a few short text cards, and moves right into the heat of action.

Some critics have also noted Nolan’s reliance on dead girlfriends and wives as a placeholder for character motivation and backstory for his predominantly male protagonists. Dunkirk, however, is a story told entirely in the present tense; we never hear about the girls back home, or even about what specific cause these soldiers are fighting for.

Nearly two decades into an otherwise highly technically accomplished career, Nolan also remains almost inexplicably bad at sound mixing. Some viewers have already complained that Dunkirk was mixed too loud, making it difficult to decipher some of the film’s dialogue underneath the bombastic Hans Zimmer score, as did some viewers of his previous film, the 2014 space epic Interstellar.

In both cases, Nolan has claimed the muddled sound mix to be an intentional artistic choice. In my experience seeing Dunkirk, however, I am skeptical that anyone would deliberately choose to obscure the few bits of dialogue actually necessary to experiencing the film. Having seen Mad Max: Fury Road in IMAX at the AMC Lincoln Square in New York—one of the few modern films to match Dunkirk in terms of pure craft and action filmmaking—on the same screen, I had issues with Dunkirk that I haven’t had with works by similar action film auteurs. Even in Dunkirk’s quieter, more emotionally grounded moments, especially the bits with Mr. Dawson, Mark Rylance’s civilian sailor and one of the few actually distinguishable characters in Dunkirk. I had trouble deciphering the dialogue to an extent that took me out of the experience.

However, if I tell myself that this is true to the experience of war also being really fucking loud and confusing, I’m able to buy into the notion of Dunkirk as being a flawless technical achievement, as the most devout ‘Nolan bros’ might want me to believe.

As a result, Dunkirk marks perhaps the most effective use of Christopher Nolan’s considerable resources to date—as a visual storyteller and as an absurdly well-financed studio filmmaker at the height of his powers. Every bit of Dunkirk’s reported $100 million budget is readily apparent on screen, and especially so in the IMAX 70mm format.

Even the biggest Nolan detractors can concede that this is an absolutely massive piece of filmmaking. While I remain more skeptical than other cinephiles on IMAX as a format (and too often, as a replacement) for large-scale spectacle in Hollywood filmmaking, it’s hard to deny the visceral impact of seeing a film presented on such a massive scale, especially on a ‘true’ IMAX screen like the one on which I saw Dunkirk.

I am also more skeptical than most of the film fetishism that filmmakers like Nolan, with the capital and industry establishment necessary to continue shooting on film, have continued to advocate for despite the obvious commercial dominance of digital filmmaking. However, between Dunkirk and The Master, the 2012 Paul Thomas Anderson film that marked the revival of the 70mm format in this century, I am convinced that there is no filmic image richer or more compelling than that of water captured on 70mm film. The technical and financial risks that Nolan made in making Dunkirk on this scale, and this uncompromisingly true to his vision, have paid off handsomely.

While Warner Bros. certainly took a gamble betting on Dunkirk as a summer tentpole, it doesn’t hold a candle in terms of pure audacity to the other major release of Dunkirk’s opening weekend. Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a 137-minute, independently-produced, $200 million project based on a French comic little-known to most American audiences, and starring Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne, two relatively unrecognizable leads for a major Hollywood blockbuster.

Where Dunkirk exercises restraint and good taste, Valerian chooses the direct opposite. Valerian has everything one may or may not want in a single film: intricately rendered 3D worlds, critters that poop magical pearls of energy, space armadillos with questionable anti-Semitic undertones, jazz legend Herbie Hancock as a deep space defense minister, Rihanna as a shapeshifting burlesque dancer, interdimensional space tourism.

For instance, Cara Delevingne, one of the biggest supermodels in the world, gets a role as a sidekick whose only character traits are that she:

(1) is a woman

(2) can’t drive

(3) loves to shop

(4) is somehow rivaled in hotness by alleged Mr. Steal-Yo-Girl Dane DeHaan

(5) works for the government (it’s never stated which one—just “the” government)

(6) graduated from the Ivy League...in space?

(7) wears a giant hat

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is weird, messy, deeply flawed, and much too long—everything Dunkirk isn’t. It was not surprising to see that Dunkirk beat Valerian quite handily at the box office last weekend. However, both films are tied as my favorite films of 2017 to this point, and the fact that they were released on the same weekend helps elucidate their respective strengths and weaknesses. For all of Valerian’s considerable flaws, I am partial to Valerian over Dunkirk in at least one significant aspect.

While Dunkirk also certainly has its fair share of striking visuals, I don’t think any other film will top the opening 40 minutes of Valerian in terms of pure spectacle in 2017. And more than that, I admire Valerian’s deep, unflinching sincerity, a trait that seems missing at times from Dunkirk. At every moment, Valerian constantly runs the risk of being corny, sentimental, too emotionally or narratively facile. And yet, Besson never flinches from his strange, overambitious, achingly sincere vision of science fiction filmmaking.

At its best, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets reaches heights of big-hearted wonder and spectacle reminiscent of ‘80s Amblin-era Steven Spielberg, or even the original Star Wars. Valerian is an anomaly in an era where this sort of raw, wonderstruck emotion tends to be approached with either ironic distance, as in Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s The Lego Movie or 21 Jump Street franchises, or with the distance of ‘80s nostalgia, as in the hit Netflix series Stranger Things or Spielberg’s upcoming film-slash-self-mythologizing treacle Ready Player One.

Valerian never seems self-conscious about its own sincerity, even when it runs the risk of embarrassment. As The Atlantic writer David Sims pointed out on Twitter, Valerian’s exhilaratingly simple plot can be summed up in under 140 characters:

It's hard to imagine, for instance, the Marvel Cinematic Universe being so upfront about the increasingly extraneous and interchangeable MacGuffins it relies on as an excuse for bringing its heroes together, as its monopoly on Hollywood filmmaking continues to expand to terrifying lengths. Valerian, meanwhile, is content with providing the bare minimum of plot needed to bring viewers into its expansive universe, and chooses rather to revel in the many, often deeply nerdy pleasures available for viewers in that world. And perhaps most admirably, Valerian never feels the need to undercut the silliness at its very core.

It's for these reasons that Valerian ties with Dunkirk, quite inarguably a more accomplished work of filmmaking and craft, as my favorite film of 2017 so far.

It is for similar reasons that Dunkirk is also tied with Interstellar—the 169 minute space epic that has the least in common with Dunkirk on paper than the rest of Nolan’s filmography—as my two favorite Nolan films to date.

As is the case for Valerian and Besson, Interstellar is weird, stilted, overlong and overambitious, and exposes some of Nolan’s biggest flaws and excesses as a filmmaker. Interstellar is a massively ambitious, three-hour space epic based on rather arcane quantum physics that, quite infamously for its detractors, comes down to...the power of love, between a father and his daughter, in the most nakedly sentimental, Hallmark definition of the term.

Some of Nolan’s biggest flaws from throughout his filmography show up in their worst forms in Interstellar: his tendencies toward overt exposition over visual storytelling, his often stilted scripts, his continued reliance on dead wives and girlfriends for emotional stakes, his inexplicable propensity for terrible sound mixing. Even the biggest Nolan fans, who are willing to overlook these tendencies in films like Inception or The Dark Knight, will concede that the characters and dialogue in Interstellar are a bit hokey. As a result, Nolan fans tend to rank Interstellar low among his filmography, perhaps because they find its ending—in all its naked sentimentality—less intellectually rigorous than his more widely acclaimed films.

Nevertheless, I can’t bear to look away whenever Interstellar is playing. For its considerable flaws, Interstellar contains some of most compelling and well-crafted sequences in all of Nolan’s filmography, and I can’t help but admire Nolan as he stumbles toward something he seemed once seemed incapable of—raw emotional sincerity. Interstellar constantly wears its heart on its sleeve, from the father-daughter relationship at its core to its final assertion of love as being enough to save humanity. To place Interstellar in the context of Paul Thomas Anderson, another similarly hypermasculine, widely acclaimed auteur, Interstellar would be the Magnolia to Dunkirk’s There Will Be Blood: the polarizing, frustrating, deeply vulnerable passion project made prior to the director’s unquestioned masterpiece.

For all the hand-wringing about the best theatrical presentation in which to experience Dunkirk, I already get the sense that the optimal experience of Dunkirk for me will be as a great cable movie someday.

While some purists of the theatrical experience, especially those who have endorsed IMAX 70mm as the only proper way to see Dunkirk, might find this opinion to be blasphemous, my relationship to great films is not defined by these conditions.

Like Dreamgirls and The Social Network before it, Dunkirk hits the sweet spot of a great cable movie for my tastes: relatively short, tense, escapist without veering too heavily into fantasy, and filled with extremely beautiful people wearing extremely beautiful clothes. (I’m already quite fond of the maroon turtleneck that Mark Rylance's son wears quite capably in the film, along with every last one of the slightly indistinguishable young British babes with impossibly high cheekbones and identical haircuts in the film’s ensemble. The rewatchability quotient already seems quite high with Dunkirk, even if I won’t have the pristine IMAX 70mm experience every time.

Dunkirk is by far Christopher Nolan’s most accomplished work of filmmaking to date, and it most likely will end up being his masterpiece. But in the rush to crown films like Dunkirk as masterpieces for their technical precision, it might help to consider other factors that also contribute to great cinema.

Stephan Cho

Stephan Cho is a senior and the editor-in-chief of The Moviegoer. His interests include pop culture criticism, creative writing, and music production.