Summer movie season is a time for superheroes, space battles, and random stupid rom-coms. But this July, Dunkirk was released—a bonafide Oscar contender that opened amidst films like War for the Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. All these movies had massive marketing campaigns, obscene budgets, and were all based far away from reality. But Dunkirk is a war movie about the true events leading up to the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British troops in May of 1940. In its opening weekend, Dunkirk topped the box office, raking just over 55 million in North America and crossing 100 million worldwide.
How could a war movie tucked in between some of the summer’s most hopeful blockbusters have out produced them all?
The answer—Christopher Nolan.
Nolan is the director who brought us The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar. And with The Dark Knight Trilogy, he produced a legion of fans that would follow him anywhere—this past weekend those same fans went along with his WWII tale. Those fans aren’t whole-heartedly superhero movie fans. These are fans of perhaps the greatest director of his generation.
With or without his audience in mind, Nolan did something rather bold with Dunkirk. He made his war film PG.
There was quite a buzz surrounding the announcement that Dunkirk would be PG. Could a World War II film worth its salt be made at this rating? Other World War II films like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and most recently, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, were fraught with violence and bloodshed. It’s the kind of bloodshed puts audiences right in the action—so close to the carnage that they would never want to be a part of any war.
How could Nolan’s Dunkirk compete?
Simple. He created a film that leans more on being a harrowing thriller than a blood and guts war film. Should the gore of war have been a significant part of Dunkirk, it could have taken away from the white-knuckling nature of this film. All anyone had to do was google the events of Dunkirk to find out the ending—there’s no surprise there. However, Nolan’s direction took audiences on a captivating, yet relatively bloodless, thrill ride.
Nolan’s plot choices, like choosing to lessen the bloodshed, allowed the focus of the film to be on the event itself and not the glory and carnage of war, but the events at Dunkirk take center stage in Nolan’s exquisite tale. Where most other war films delve deep into character, whether in Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Schindler’s List, or The Thin Red Line. Dunkirk follows a handful of characters, those men played by Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, and Kenneth Branagh never overshadow the events at Dunkirk.
This is where Nolan’s mastery of the film medium is clearly evident. Dunkirk plays out much like a silent film. The film has very little dialogue and it’s the imagery of the visual medium that tells the story. Much like what George Miller accomplished in 2015 with Mad Max: Fury Road, Dunkirk utilizes the visual nature of film to its fullest—giving audiences a true work of art.
Finally, Nolan’s choice for creating such a riveting war film but rating it PG has widened the movie’s viewership considerably. Should the film have pushed closer to Hacksaw Ridge with exploding bodies and missing limbs, the only ones watching the film would be anyone over 18 or children of delinquent parents. Having Dunkirk rated PG, the film can be used as a teachable medium for young people. Nolan’s movie could easily be shown in high schools the world over, offering students not only a historical tale but also a compelling drama of heroism and the push for the communal good.
The thing is, Dunkirk never downplays the horrors of war. The sacrifices both the soldiers and the civilians made are never diminished—mostly because of Nolan’s superior filmmaking ability. The film is a teachable movie on many levels and Nolan has made a clear effort to allow as many audience members as he could to see his film with it still being a war movie.
And we are all the better for it. Dunkirk clocks in at just over 100 minutes—it’s a brisk war movie the whole family can enjoy.
Well, most of the family anyway.