Over the last ten years, Christopher Nolan has become perhaps the closest thing Hollywood has to a tentpole director with a blank check. So, with curiosity, earlier this year I took a look back at Following, his 1998 debut, a fractured and scrappy modern noir made in the UK for $6,000 before Nolan had turned thirty. It is a remarkably skillful beginning, and it shows how many of his virtues, vices, and trademarks were there from the start: an addiction to non-linear narrative, a dark fascination with moral compromise, an eye for slippery editing, an ear for rattled anti-heroes, a few cheap tricks and small hiccups, and the gnawing, inescapable sense that the cynicism/fatalism of his cinema is not really worldly wisdom, but an aesthetic preference. And make no mistake: in an era when fans treat Nolan as one of Hollywood’s reigning geniuses, true wisdom remains the most underrated quality a film can have.
But looking at the structure of Following, in which a doomed man tells his tale, it struck me that the story-within-a-story format is very telling for Nolan. First, there are flashbacks to moments that the main character was present for (memory). Then, there are scenes from the main character’s story that he did not witness, but must assume happened (imagination, or some element of it). Last but not least, there is a final revelation that is neither narrated or witnessed by the hero, but presented to us as objective fact (let’s call it reality). And so, to tell its simple story, we juggle between the three realms, with different levels of subjectivity and none really distinguished from the other. But as impressive as Following is, digging so deep into its layers of narrative reliability may be giving it too much credit. By the end, there aren’t three kinds of perspectives. There is only one: Nolan’s, the all-seeing man with the camera, the sole presence in the film with all the answers, doling out information or twists to the audience in just the right amount—and in just the right order—to try to catch you off guard. He is, first and foremost, a purveyor of effective, clever, and dubiously meaningful narrative magic tricks. It’s no wonder that, for many cinephiles, including myself, it feels like his most personal work comes in the dueling magicians of The Prestige (2006).
About those cinephiles: for the last ten years, I’ve been stuck in the middle, caught between worshipful fanboys versus critic types for whom taking Nolan down a peg has become a kind of standard. As for the latter, I can understand it: Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and Interstellar (2014)—his first three films after The Dark Knight (2008) made him an IMDb god—are his weakest films by far, overextended in their complexity, overhyped in their deeper meaning, and vague in their narrative mechanisms. But I’ll say this for Nolan: he uses the power of that blank check for good. In his ambition and dedication to the virtues of analog filmmaking, he’s worth tracking because he’s the only major studio tentpole filmmaker active today to reach so far.
Part of that analog spirit is why Dunkirk, his latest film and a prime Oscar contender, is only coming out on home video now, when plenty of other summer releases became available to rent months ago. As part of the Oscar campaign—and, I would venture, Nolan’s personal taste—the film was rereleased in theaters earlier in December for select IMAX and 70mm presentations, before Blu-ray, iTunes, and Amazon Video viewers could get their hands on it. I was eager to see it, because it promised the end of a rut that needed to be shaken. It is Nolan’s first film in over a decade to be set in the real world, as opposed to a sci-fi or comic book world. It is his shortest film in a decade as well, and it’s a testament to the multiplex grandiosity of his last few films that this time-shifting, $100 million movie feels like Nolan has scaled back to basics.
Set at the evacuation of Dunkirk during the early days of World War II, the film is an epic of survival and retreat, as half a million Allied troops, stranded on the coast of France, hold fast and wait for help from home. And of course—nothing being linear for Nolan, even history—the film intertwines three stories on three timescales: frantic troops look for a way off the beach (set over the last week before evacuation); a British civilian sails his boat across the channel to rescue as many men as he can carry (set over the last day); and an RAF pilot, running low on fuel, engages in a dogfight over the sea (set over the last hour).
The result is his first great film in ages. Watching it unfold, I couldn’t help but think of the omniscient Nolan of a film like Following—the all-seeing eye—because Dunkirk is material that calls for a certain Mount-Olympus point of view. Which is to say, Dunkirk overcomes most of Nolan’s weak points by either dodging the attempt or leaning into them so hard that they become strengths. It is a decentralized mood piece writ large, a relentless string of immaculately terrifying set-pieces to escape an unseen enemy, and a film that sustains high-wire darkness before giving way to the chance of mercy. It is above all a sensory experience, a kind of narrative soup where every figure is dwarfed and no one can claim to be the main character, not even a dignified Kenneth Branagh, a devoted Mark Rylance, or a shell-shocked Cillian Murphy. The wonky exposition of The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar are not an issue; the underlying plot events of Dunkirk are pure simplicity, and its chaotic presentation feels both appropriate for a fog of war and increasingly lucid as the film goes on. Nolan’s last two films had blind spots when it came to nuanced psychology or seamless characterization. Here, there’s no need for either; it’s enough to know that these characters are people who face death and fear it. (Indeed, the film’s biggest stumbles come when it attempts to get more intimate than that). In the absence of so many of the up-close-and-personal elements of an epic drama, what that leaves you with is a distilled version of Nolan’s physical craft, which has never been stronger or more controlled, and an evocative sea of actors’ faces.
It is certainly a war movie for its time. “Survival is victory”, says the movie’s tagline, and the sentiment is echoed rather explicitly near the end, which finds Britain reflecting and regrouping. “Inspiring” is a word that tends to get thrown around a lot in Oscar season, and Dunkirk is, on the face of it, the sort of inspiring “based on a true story” that Hollywood dreams are made of: Britain hoped to save 30,000 troops, and ended up saving ten times as many. But Nolan remains fascinated by compromise, and there is a certain conflicted passion to the way it comes to a close. Dunkirk runs its characters through a gauntlet of some very un-heroic emotions, and ends with one of them—nobody more or less remarkable than one soldier among many—reading aloud Churchill’s famous “we shall never surrender” speech while the music swells.
Are we meant to find it inspirational? The simple answer is yes, of course, naturally. But all you need to do is set it side by side with, say, the Lincoln letter scene of Saving Private Ryan (1998) to notice that Nolan’s tone, and where he leaves his characters, is something different than just the typical piety—starting with the fact that the soldier reads the speech solemnly but without grandiloquence. Is he dazed? Weary? Optimistic? Nervous? Quietly resolved? All of the above? Contradictions can be found in reconciling the end with what came before it: war as a challenge that must be faced, as an ordeal that any sane man might run from, as a reverent demand for heroism, as a reality where survival matters most. (And, whether the film realizes it or not, as both a violent nightmare and a spectacle with an audience-friendly PG-13 rating). It is in this respect that Dunkirk, taken as a whole, comes shy of being a masterpiece, but provides one of the more valuable storytelling lessons of Nolan’s career: that the true measure of a film’s complexity is not its tricky structures, loaded mythology, or topical window-dressing, but the amount of opposing truths it can fit onto the same screen at once.
In other words, Dunkirk is, like any Nolan film, a clockwork mechanism. But it is built to leave you somewhat disoriented and suspended as well as moved, whereas someone like Steven Spielberg always left World War II, as both an event and an idea, tied in a neat little bow. Nolan may be the first director to try and reconcile the Spielberg of Saving Private Ryan with the Terrence Malick of The Thin Red Line (1998)—a cinephile divide if there ever was one—and the fact that Nolan even comes close is a remarkable achievement. Dunkirk isn’t a film without flaws, compromises, or contrivances. It doesn’t reinvent the World War II movie, which is a lot to ask, I know. But for now, it is one of the most potent movies for both its year and its director; it means more to me in 2017 than Private Ryan ever did. Skill with a camera was never Nolan’s problem, even when he was working on less than $10,000. But more than ever, Nolan and his considerable talents are closer to saying something magnificent than to performing sleight-of-hand.
Dunkirk is now available as a digital rental, whether Christopher Nolan likes that or not. It will still feel intensely claustrophobic on a laptop screen.