Daniel Clarkson Fisher reviews Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, and discusses the moral obligations of the artist, the WW2 combat genre, and the potential for a 'truly radical flowering' of progressive film culture.
In keeping with his penchant for enormity, Christopher Nolan’s new film Dunkirk arrives at the intersection of two large and complicated questions: “Do movies about combat ever end up coming across as anything but pro-war?” and “When should issues of form precede those of content in film criticism?” A big-budget dramatization of the harrowing, real-life evacuation of over 300,000 Allied troops from the beaches of the eponymous French village, the director’s latest fits squarely within the World War II combat genre. But does it escape the warmongering trappings of such films?
In addition, as a significant technical achievement, Dunkirk has garnered not only boffo box office and awards buzz, but also near-universal critical acclaim – all without having to endure very much in the way of substantive conversation about its meaning and message, or the aforementioned problems of the genre in general. But how necessary are these conversations? And to whose way of thinking?
Searching for moral perfection
We should start by stating the obvious: while there might be some overlap, the priorities of professional film critics are very different from those of us contributing to Culture Matters who are engaged in “a ‘broad left cultural struggle for a better society.” While offering a political dissection of Dunkirk might be our department, it’s not, as a rule, theirs.
By way of illustration, in his widely-read piece “Intolerance,” written for Film Comment in 2013, the New York Film Festival’s Kent Jones suggests that “holding an artist working in a popular form to the standards of an activist or a statesman and condemning him for failing to escape the boundaries of his own moment is a fool’s game.”
Now, obviously this perspective isn’t shared by every single critic and publication: The Nation’s Stuart Klawans is one example of a notable critic firmly rooted in leftist politics, and then there’s the magazine Cineaste, which offers what it calls “a social, political, and aesthetic perspective on the cinema.” However, I think it would be accurate to say that a fairly large cross section of film critics share Jones’s view that politically-minded criticism amounts to little more than “searching for moral perfection in artists.”
Zero Dark Thirty
Consider the critical response to Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. In most critics’ eyes, neither the CIA’s deeply dubious involvement in the production nor the film’s deleterious suggestion that torture might have been helpful in locating bin Laden were enough to detract from the high level of its craft: the film appeared on dozens and dozens of “best of the year” lists, often in the #1 spot.
Even critics who were sufficiently sober about its very real issues still allowed form to reign over content in their evaluations. “As a moral statement, Zero Dark Thirty is borderline fascistic...barely distinct from a boneheaded right-wing revenge picture," writes critic David Edelstein in his review for Vulture. "[But as] a piece of cinema, it’s phenomenally gripping--an unholy masterwork.” It’s not that Edelstein is wrong exactly, but reviews like this (and there are many other examples) demonstrate a tendency within popular film criticism to give far more weight to a film’s artistry than any serious political and/or social concerns it might raise.
John Ford’s racism and paternalism
Worse still, attempts to flip this tendency, or even level the playing field, are usually met with resistance. Jones’s Film Comment piece, for instance, came in response to remarks made by Quentin Tarantino, in which he dismissed John Ford and his work as racist. While Jones challenges Tarantino’s reading of Ford and his films in constructive ways, and cautions well against throwing babies out with bathwater, he also says:
“It’s curious that American culture and history are still so commonly viewed through a New Left prism, by means of which 1964 or thereabouts has become a Year Zero of political enlightenment; as a consequence, the preferred stance remains that of the outsider looking in, or in this case back, at a supposedly gullible and delusional pre-Sixties America.”
The implication here is that if we hold Ford to a higher standard than he held himself, we’re being ahistorical. As if that weren’t a shaky enough assertion, Jones goes farther, painting the period with a rather broad brush. “Is Ford’s vision ‘paternalistic?’” he asks. “I suppose it is...but the culture was paternalistic.” This gross universalization captures the zeitgeist, of course, but it also manages to erase any trace of the radical thinkers and movements that were present at the time, including and especially within Hollywood (among Ford’s contemporaries were Paul Robeson, Dorothy Parker, and Dashiell Hammett, to name just a few). While Ford and his films reflected a lot of people’s views, they certainly didn’t reflect everyone’s, particularly the paternalized. So who’s really “de-complicating history” here, then?
Keep Calm and Carry On: The Movie
It’s in this bourgeois critical milieu that the Film of the Moment has been enjoying an incredibly warm reception. But Dunkirk isn’t Zero Dark Thirty, and Christopher Nolan isn’t John Ford. It’s entirely possible that critics have gotten it mostly right this time. Indeed, Culture Matters has already published a largely positive review from Michael Roberts, which should tell you a bit about where it falls on the scale of problematic works of art. In addition, with fascist movements currently flexing their muscles (in the U.S. and elsewhere), it’s understandable that few are in the mood to nitpick a movie with a clear-sighted take on the European theatre of World War II.
There have been quibbles from critics and others about whether or not the film downplays the role of the French at Dunkirk, and admonishments over its failure to depict any of the Indian soldiers in the British Army, but it’s also clear that Nolan (who grew up living between England and the United States) is trying to understand something about an English stereotype here: as many have previously noted, Dunkirk is essentially Keep Calm and Carry On: The Movie.
It is not a sprawling epic (at 106 minutes, it’s actually the second shortest film in Nolan’s oeuvre), but something much more specific and intimate: a British-American writer-director unpacking the significance of a story he was often told growing up. In doing so, Nolan has decidedly not made a film about every single group and faction that took part in “Operation Dynamo,” but rather one about those most personally connected to the evacuation site; for each and every character, it’s not just a place of retreat that they’re trying to get to, but their “home.” (That said, there’s no reason Nolan couldn’t have shown some of that historically accurate diversity in at least one of the film’s many crowd shots, and he should absolutely be held to account for that.)
To his credit, Nolan also breaks with quite a few war film conventions here. For one thing, Dunkirk’s lead character, Tommy (played by Fionn Whitehead), as well as several supporting characters, engage in behavior that would pigeonhole them as worthless cowards in even the most hallowed entries in the World War II combat genre. Think, for example, of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and how Jeremy Davies’s lily-livered private is shown to be pathetically ineffectual: he can’t even muster the courage to stop a death that would have been easy to prevent, and the best he’s ultimately capable of is a war crime (shooting an unarmed prisoner).
Terrence Malick’s ostensibly anti-war The Thin Red Line does a bit better by Adrien Brody’s perpetually petrified GI, but, in the final analysis, he’s just as useless and even more one-dimensional. In Dunkirk, though, every character, even the most traditionally “heroic” in the bunch (Tom Hardy’s dashing, dog-fighting pilot), has moments of fear and trembling. For Nolan, faintheartedness isn’t a defect, but a feature of anyone and everyone’s experience of war.
Some handle the pressure with a stiffer upper lip than others, but bravery doesn’t necessarily guarantee salvation or survival either. In a bout of self-loathing, a young private (played by One Direction’s Harry Styles) says in response to congratulations, “All we did was survive.” A civilian volunteer (played by Nolan’s father Brendan) reassures him: “That’s enough.” Even Cillian Murphy’s unnamed “shivering soldier,” whose jitters end up causing the most harm, is compassionately understood as badly shell-shocked, and not lacking in backbone or moral fibre.
In addition, Nolan’s decision to completely eschew blood and guts (save for one or two drops of red in a key moment) is a wise one. Not only is the gore-heavy, quick-cut style of World War II films like David Ayer’s Fury and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge thoroughly played out, but it’s an open question whether or not that kind of sensory overload has any real value: what these filmmakers call gritty and authentic, others might call fetishistic and desensitizing.
The more impressionistic and brooding style of Dunkirk, on the other hand, really puts the viewer in a place of understanding about the stomach-turning tension and dread that soldiers there faced. “War is hell,” as the saying goes, and Nolan makes us feel the anxiety of it like few films have. A $100 million production shot largely with IMAX cameras, it’s a sensory experience, to be sure, but, refreshingly, one genuinely aimed at offering a new understanding.
But can a combat film ever really alter our perspective on war? In “Is There Any Such Thing as an ‘Anti-War Film’?,” one of his BBC.com columns, Tom Brook writes:
“’There’s no such thing as an anti-war film,’ is a quote often attributed to the late French filmmaker François Truffaut. There are different ways to interpret this remark but it’s widely agreed that Truffaut was suggesting that movies will inevitably glorify combat when they portray the adventure and thrill of conflict -- and the camaraderie between soldiers.”
On this score, Dunkirk probably would have gotten a big thumbs-down from Truffaut. In particular, the aerial battles are designed to be unabashedly rousing, and they borrow as much from Star Wars as Tora! Tora! Tora! Camaraderie is also at the heart of this whole enterprise, as the film’s tagline makes abundantly clear: “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.”
Truffaut may have been right, but, coming full circle, I do think the filmmaker’s politics matter too: whether explicitly stated or merely implied through the work, every director comes to the table with a particular point of view. It’s therefore neither correct nor helpful to write off all war movies as exactly the same, even if there are problems inherent to the genre as whole. Ideologically speaking, there’s a world of difference between, say, Top Gun and Paths of Glory, despite the fact that they are both fit into the combat genre, more or less. We should absolutely talk about the limitations and traps of the genre, but also recognize the need to parse individual filmmakers and their films carefully.
The centre-left politics of Dunkirk
So what are Christopher Nolan’s politics, and how do they show up in Dunkirk? The director likes to suggest that he’s an apolitical filmmaker, but it’s very hard to take these comments at face value because...well, there’s no such thing as an apolitical filmmaker. Obviously, then, the work can’t and doesn’t bear out his claims.
For example, when he insisted to Rolling Stone that The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final film in his Batman trilogy, wasn’t “intended to be political,” it seemed absurd: among other things, that film depicted literal class warfare, a nakedly fascist police state, acts of terrorism, kangaroo courts, and a Gotham City-style storming of the Bastille. Not “intended to be political,” indeed! Similarly, Nolan has explained that Dunkirk does not include any heads of state or scenes of “war room” strategy-making because he didn’t want to get “bogged down in the politics of the situation.” But, of course, a movie can be plenty political without characters and scenes like these.
All of this is not to say that Nolan is some kind of political hack. The Baffler’s Jonathan Sturgeon recently served up a poorly argued takedown of the director, in which he calls his work “Tory porn.” It’s telling, though, that Sturgeon gives Nolan’s films only the most superficial of readings (even badly misrepresenting a couple of scenes), and spends an inordinate amount of space “imagining” what he must be like on-set.
This piece might work as click-bait, but it fails as fair and thoughtful criticism. Much more convincing and even-handed are Jeff Spross and Zack Beauchamp of ThinkProgress, who argue that Nolan’s Batman films betray his centrist liberal worldview. The authors point out that the trilogy’s story arc resonates strongly with the work of political theorist Judith N. Shklar, and demonstrates that Nolan has clearly “mounted a layered defense of liberal democracy against its authoritarian opponents” with his Dark Knight cycle.
The centre-left label certainly fits elsewhere in his body of work. Interstellar, for example, offers a terrifyingly realistic vision of Earth’s future, but is far less interested in confronting the anthropogenic roots of climate change than it is in visualizing science’s possible workarounds. In this regard, it’s the perfect film for a neoliberal establishment that keeps avoiding the self-reflection and large-scale changes that are going to be necessary if we want life to continue on this planet. In addition, the dapper corporate spies of Inception, hypocritically trying to “convince the heir of a major corporation to dissolve his father’s empire,” would likely appreciate the anti-monopolistic sentiments expressed in the U.S. Democrats’ new “Better Deal” plan.
Dunkirk evinces a centrist liberal outlook as well. In one suspenseful moment, the aforementioned shivering soldier demands that his civilian rescuers turn away from Dunkirk and head back to England. Trying to make a case for the futility of their efforts, he notes that the middle-aged yachtsman at the helm (played by Mark Rylance) is “an old man.” “Men my age dictate this war,” he replies. “Why should we be allowed to send our children to fight it?” In this moment, Dunkirk’s preoccupation with personal responsibility, the political centre’s favourite hobby horse, is boldly underscored.
Moreover, in the scene that seems most like Nolan’s commentary on Brexit (the referendum took place in the middle of principal photography), Tommy sticks up for a French deserter in disguise. His fellow Brits want the outsider to vacate a civilian vessel that they’re all hiding in: waiting for the tide to take them away, they need to lose some weight in order to leave sooner rather than later. “Better him than us,” the groupthink goes. “He’s not one of us.” But Tommy says no, pointing out that the Frenchman earlier saved their lives; they’re necessarily allied with each other whether they like it or not. It’s not a stretch to imagine Lib Dems interpreting this “we’re all in this together” moment as Nolan’s “remain” vote, rightly or wrongly.
Of course, when it comes to projects of this scale, determining a film’s politics encompasses more than just locating the auteur on the electoral spectrum. As a big-budget, studio tentpole, Dunkirk has promotional considerations, and some of those undermine what Nolan is doing. In particular, the partnership with the video game “World of Warships” is not only contrary to the film’s spirit, but crassly commercial and jingoistic. The embrace of Dunkirk by people like Nigel Farage also raises an evergreen question: “Has a work of art sufficiently conveyed its message if it can be so easily and successfully co-opted by unsavory figures?” Finally, there’s the revelation that the film was one of several Warner Bros. productions that the U.S.’s oligarchic Koch brothers, Charles and David, have silently invested in over the last four years. We should ask questions about their interest in helping shepherd Nolan’s vision to the screen, beyond the obvious financial one.
In the end, though, I don’t think Dunkirk raises nearly as many alarm bells as a lot of other war films, and it rather impressively manages to subvert some of the genre’s most objectionable tropes. It is by no means a radical work, but its centre-left disposition is welcome, incremental progress in a genre that more often than not tends toward frightfully conservative values. At the same time, though, maybe filmmakers like Nolan could devote their energy to more robustly progressive projects that don’t come fraught with the baggage of combat pictures. In addition, film culture could stand to step up its game when it comes evaluating films like Dunkirk: it may seem pretty innocuous when compared to something like Zero Dark Thirty, but it has its troublesome aspects too.
Again, while the mandates of professional film critics and Culture Matters contributors do diverge, it’s too glib by half to dismiss political readings of films as “searching for moral perfection in artists” and leave it at that. Movies matter, and as much as we may want to confine them to analyses that are purely abstract in nature, they have real world impacts. We’ve seen them used effectively as propaganda, protest, and everything in between.
It’s imperative, then, as Martin Scorsese writes in his New York Review of Books essay “The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema,” that we “understand the difference between moving images that engage [our] humanity and [our] intelligence, and moving images that are just selling [us] something.” We can only do this by asking hard questions of our popular culture, as Marc Nash does in his recent article in Culture Matters.
So it’s both right and important to ask (and continue asking) whether or not Dunkirk pushes us to think critically or not about war. The more we probe films like it and demand better, the greater the likelihood of a truly radical flowering in the cinema that we can feel good about supporting.