Will Christopher Nolan Find His Soul in Dunkirk?

By  · Published on December 30th, 2016


How Nolan’s first war movie will be his first without the obvious heroes. Not even Harry Styles.

Christopher Nolan has always wanted to make a war movie. His work often flirts with the genre – from turning a superhero movie into an extended series of metaphors for the War on Terror to populating a movie about dreams with semi-automatic rifles and abundant explosives. Like many a war movie, Nolan’s movies are often designed more around missions than people: Inception and Interstellar explode in IMAX spectacle and not, say, a few choice words in a Cheesecake factory. Hell, Memento’s Leonard (Guy Pearce) is not so much a character as a singular mission, tattooed on his body. There is a sense that Nolan has been waiting his entire career to blow things up with the historical opulence that comes with the territory of military cinema. “I’d already started playing around with my dad’s Super 8 camera, making little war films and stuff,” Nolan told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview where he talked about his first ventures in cinematic storytelling. And now, with millions upon millions of dollars shoved in his hands, he’s doing it again. And he’s chosen Dunkirk.

What is the significance of choosing this small and, in the larger course of the war, inconsequential battlefield? Like the welltrod beaches of D-Day, Dunkirk tackles an amphibious military campaign – albeit one less popular on this side of the pond. For an American, like myself, the battle of Dunkirk bears faint resemblance to that of Gallipoli, the failed Allied invasion of Ottoman Turkey during the First World War that retains a strong cult following in Oceania, where a national day of remembrance is still occasionally honored complete with its own culinary tradition. But when Pete Weir (The Year of Living Dangerously, The Way Back), an Australian, attempted to market his Mel Gibson war movie titled Gallipoli over here, its gloriously silly tagline hints at the obliviousness of American audiences to battles that are not D-Day or Iwo Jima: “From a place you’ve never heard of, comes a story you’ll never forget.” And like Gallipoli, the battle or the movie, Dunkirk will be a curious sell, namely because it’s about a military defeat for the good guys. The defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in the first year of the Second World War paved the way for the fall of Paris and four brutal years of Nazi occupation. The historical episode Nolan has concerned himself with, Operation Dynamo, which took place near the French town of Dunkirk, was an exercise in picking up the pieces after a titanic loss. While many a Nolan movie can be thought of in war movie-terms, Dunkirk just might be the first one that’s about sheer survival.

With a focus on the humdrum of not getting killed, Dunkirk has the potential to be Nolan’s first real character drama. By which I mean, a drama without the obvious sells of cool-looking science or a popular comic franchise and the obvious heroes they inspire. In Inception, Leo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb is the only character written an arc that isn’t solely concerned with the technical aspects of dream extraction. In both The Prestige and much of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Nolan deals us singular leading men (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, respectively) who arrive to solve some central puzzle manufactured by a shadowy antagonist. Interstellar, which some have called Nolan’s most personal film to date, tries to bridge this gap by giving Matthew McConaughey both a daughter (Mackenzie Foy and, later, Jessica Chastain) and an Anne Hathaway to flirt with, but neither of them are really studied so much as deployed to merely impact McConaughey.

Casting for Nolan has always been vaguely impeccable; his leading men are never the right people for the job so much as the right people for any job. Which isn’t to say he chooses at random: discussing his choice of DiCaprio to helm the somewhat difficult concept behind Inception, Nolan simply said “I was able to convince Leo to do the movie and, you know, he carries an enormous amount of weight with audiences and so forth.” Dunkirk appears to be different. Working, it appears, with only one of his regulars – rough ol’ Tom Hardy, who joins a hodgepodge of other mildly well known British actors in military suits, which doesn’t include Michael Paine playing a beleaguered British colonel for some reason – two of Dunkirk’s biggest casting choices have gone to actors making their feature film debut: the very unknown Fionn Whitehead and the very known Harry Styles. Oh, my.

Whitehead, it appears, will be as close to a star as Dunkirk will have. Whitehead has a few credits to his name, namely a bit role on some ITV program, but if you’re looking for any indication for how fresh a face he is, search for him on Wikipedia right now – you’ll be redirected to the page for Dunkirk. Nolan has said that casting a complete unknown was a way to authentically capture the kind of untested and unbattled youth that donned khakis for the first time in 1940. But I predict that Nolan’s hundred million dollar budget won’t be putting all its chips on Whitehead. Instead, I predict that this indicates that Dunkirk will be the first Nolan movie to not possess a singular hero who has to grapple with his issues before saving the day. One reviewer, who watched a seven-minute clip of Dunkirk at a random IMAX in London earlier this month (Nolan similarly teased the Joker heist scene from The Dark Knight and Bane’s introduction from The Dark Knight Rises to amp up both releases in high-definition), noted that:

The preview cut between three locations…We saw Mark Rylance as a civilian loading up his small boat with supplies before heading off to aid the evacuation, soldiers on the beach waiting for said evacuation and Tom Hardy as a Spitfire pilot taking part in a dogfight above the sea.

Not quite the display of heroes and villains blowing things up you were hoping for?

Inception (2010)

One of those multifarious British men starring in Dunkirk, Mark Rylance, suggested to Empire Movies that Nolan’s vision has “the potential to make a very, very powerful and simple, pure war film.” Simple probably isn’t a word anyone would use to describe a Nolan movie, at least not since his feature debut, the black-and-white and famously shot-on-the-weekends Following. Clocking in at a very smart seventy minutes, Nolan’s debut focused on a young writer who took to following around a number of random strangers and then gets framed by a member of the mob. At its heart, it becomes a celebration of the ordinariness of the lives its characters follow – the half-stolen pair of earrings, the suspiciously reorganized lingerie. The movie survives as a study of the way a certain cosmopolitan set lives their lives and warns the viewer of the perils of too much navel-gazing. It stands up to Nolan’s best, in my opinion, but it’s also unlike anything he has made since.

Which is why I’m excited about a Nolan movie with small heroes, the kind who don’t save Earth from extinction or Gotham from various doom-mongers. In choosing to make a war movie about a desperate retreat, Nolan will turn his finely-attuned lenses toward the struggle of young men simply trying to make it out of a desperate situation alive in one piece. We might actually get a chance to learn something about them.

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