Let me start by saying that I loved “Dunkirk” and found it to be incredibly compelling and visually stunning. If you disagree then you’ll probably disagree with the contents of this article–no hard feelings.
War movies are incredibly hard to make. For every classic war film, there are a dozen failed attempts by directors that try to push two simple things: action filled sequences followed by an anti-war agenda. The great war movies acknowledge the complexities of war, take the tactical parts seriously, and focus on doing justice to the characters as they navigate these life changing events–without over-dramatizing their reactions.
But as time has gone on, we’ve seen some great war movies and many of them have the same themes. From the Vietnam classics like “Platoon,” “Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now” to the more recent ones like “Saving Private Ryan,” “We Were Soldiers” and “Black Hawk Down.” Many of these films have the same theme: war is brutal and it can eat away at your soul, but the brotherhood of soldiers can be the glue that keeps everyone alive–physically and spiritually. To show that, these films often show the gruesome reality of what war really is, makes the audience realize the mortality of “strong” characters, and breaks everyone down to the foundations of their own humanity. By the end, they often realize that all they had out there was each other. “Band of Brothers” successfully brought these themes to television in an incredible, unforgettable way. These films aren’t formulaic–that’s how it is in real life, in my experience anyway.
So the talented director Christopher Nolan decides that he wants to make a war movie. From day one, it sounds like he realized that war movies have been done, and done well, time and time again. In his mind, and rightfully so, “Saving Private Ryan” was at the top of the list. He went to his friend Steven Spielberg, director of “Saving Private Ryan,” and asked him for some advice.
Anyone watching Nolan’s career will notice that he consistently surrounds himself with other people who possess great talent. There is no phase of the filmmaking process that he goes alone–he often writes alongside his brother, Jonathan Nolan. His wife, Emma, is his producer. He wrote “Interstellar” with leading theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, and strives to empower his crew to do their own jobs better whenever he can (if you’re a film-guru, you’ll love this story). In an interview with Variety, his sound designer Richard King said that, “It’s important for me to work with him… he makes me better.”
Knowing and respecting that Chris is one of the world’s most imaginative filmmakers, my advice to him was to leave his imagination, as I did on ‘Ryan,’ in second position to the research he was doing to authentically acquit this historical drama.”
Nolan would then re-watch “Saving Private Ryan” and realize just how timeless it is. He would understand that a film like that captures the brutality of war which doesn’t just disintegrate as film technology changes. It was then that Nolan realized that he couldn’t make the next “Saving Private Ryan.” I am of the personal belief that anyone who wants to make the next, “(insert movie name here),” is going to fail, simply due to the fact that it will not be an original production. So how do you make a war film that doesn’t focus on the one thing war does: brutally slaughter human beings?
And yet Christopher Nolan pulled it off. He made an incredibly intense war movie that rarely shows the enemy and has little to no gore in it. On top of that, the movie somehow retains a sense of harsh realism. Nolan explains:
I needed suspense, and the language of suspense is one where you can’t take your eyes from the screen… the language of horror is one where you hide your eyes. You’re looking away. It’s a different form of tension. We constructed our set-pieces not around violence, not around blood, but around physical jeopardy.”
So he changed the genre of war film from the “language of horror” as seen in most great war movies, to the “language of suspense.” If you have seen the movie, you know this was a success.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros.