In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Warner Bros. president Toby Emmerich said he intends to steer the studio away from what the publication described as auteur directors who want authority over the final cut of the film. Emmerich instead wants proven franchise projects with built-in audiences, low risks and high yields. But, says the article, Emmerich will make exceptions in special cases.
Name-brand directors accomplished enough to command major-league budgets while retaining creative control? The article names only two: Clint Eastwood and Christopher Nolan.
Nolan’s gargantuan new war drama Dunkirk deafeningly reasserts why the director has been able to hang in against Hollywood’s money-powered meat grinder. The man has a peerless skill for reconciling the demands of big-scale filmmaking with his personal whims as an orchestrator of action and emotion. He bent the Batman franchise to his will by refashioning it as a severe moral drama whose main character happened to be a superhero, and then he sold the American people a bill of goods called Interstellar, which looked like Matthew McConaughey’s Space Adventure but turned out to be a ponderous perspective on the elasticity of time and space.
For his next, and possibly greatest trick, Nolan has whipped up a war movie fearful of and resistant to combat itself, instead preoccupied with the rough interplay between duty and fear. Nolan still makes films with the attention to aesthetic detail of the younger indie-film sensation who made Following. It’s just that now, he’s earned the right to do so on a scale so colossal that his obsessive passion projects can’t help but become hits. And of course, it didn’t hurt to hire Harry Styles.
In the parlance of college radio DJs, Dunkirk is all killer and no filler. Nolan ditches the foreplay and drops the audience into the action, then refuses to allow a single moment to get settled. (If you let it, Hans Zimmer’s relentless score will seize control of your heartbeat and forcibly quicken your pulse as danger spikes and ebbs.) For both audience and actor, there’s no safety. An unceremonious death can come from anywhere and at any time, its brutal immediacy reinforced by a sound mix that plays up the roar of artillery over speech, of which there’s not all that much to begin with.
On an overcast day at the end of May 1940, Axis powers have surrounded the British military on a stretch of beach in northern France close enough to the southern tip of England that the harried troops can make out the foggy silhouette of home. Nolan tracks the semi-organized scramble to get out alive on three fronts, cross-cutting to create a sweeping triptych that can attack the film’s central theme of scare-quoted “heroism” from multiple angles.
In the skies, pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) races against the clock to clear the air of enemy bogies before running out of fuel. At sea, noble civilian Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) takes his humble boat across the Strait of Dover to aid in the grassroots rescue effort. The film gives the most time to the situation on land, where a terse trio of soldiers — one of whom, Alex, is played by newly minted thespian Styles — desperately searches for a way out.
Nolan’s intent upending of the common perception of courage unites the three pieces, as ordinary men reveal their strong moral fiber and society’s appointed guardians are permitted to show uncertainty and terror. In the grace notes tucked within the sound and fury, the responsibilities to the self and to a greater good directly oppose one another.
On the way to Dunkirk, Dawson’s vessel picks up a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) stranded on a sinking ship. He’s terrified by the prospect of returning to the war-torn hell he just escaped and causes a small tragedy while onboard, but as a veteran himself, Dawson extends kindness and forgiveness to the man. Each third of the film centers on the process of shouldering your own pain for the sake of someone else, resulting in Nolan’s most affecting referendum on his careerlong pet theme. Batman accepted the public’s scorn in order to successfully protect them; the inverse takes place here, where the people of Britain cheer what their soldiers have processed as a failure.
This being a Nolan film, however, the technical displays of force are what will ultimately put the non-Styles-fan butts in seats. And those who could do without all the stiff-upper-lipped calm-keeping and on-carrying will have plenty to gape at, from aerial dogfights to capsizing warships setting the ocean around them aflame. (Allow me to add my voice to the chorus insisting all viewers drive however many hours it takes to the nearest 70 mm-enabled theater.)
Yet nothing in Dunkirk comes close to the gore or chaos of, say, Saving Private Ryan. In fact, the face of the enemy is seen only once, and out of focus. Rather than filming conventional battlefield shootouts, Nolan keeps the intensity high by concentrating on the incidental survival challenges that war leaves behind. In all three prongs of the film, the highest highs come when soldiers are simply trying not to drown.
The seemingly unceasing onslaught of Transformers and its ilk during the summer months can compel critics to smile more kindly on studio releases with an original vision. But even if it didn’t stand head and shoulders apart from its handsomely financed multiplex neighbors like a bronze monument next to a green plastic army man, Dunkirk would still be a towering achievement. Nolan has learned to play to his own strengths, winnowing away cumbersome talking in favor of shock-and-awe spectacle and purer pathos, albeit of the hyper-masculine variety. The director has gone back to basics, except without the “back” part; this tripartite war epic is somehow the most disarmingly simple project the master prestidigitator has ever cared to attempt. The neat-o structuring quirks of Inception and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo of Interstellar have given way to a more grounded approach, reaching the interiors of existential anguish through more accessibly mortal means.
It doesn’t matter whether a viewer worships at the altar of Nolan or denounces him as overrated — watching Dunkirk, they’ll understand why Warner Bros. gave him the lifetime pass.