Op-ed: What Happened to Heroic Movies?
By Derrick Warfel
I was waiting for the release of “Dunkirk” with great anticipation. It is one of the truly great heroic moments of World War II where the entire fate of the War effort depended on thousands of Brits pulling together to get their boys home from Dunkirk, France before the German Blitzkrieg could massacre all 400,000 of them and end the war in Europe in the Nazi’s favor. A friend got me an early script by Gavin Scott that was phenomenal. It was a story of how uninvolved and divided the British public were at the early stages of the war and how this crisis even brought all the classes to work together to pull off one of the most miraculous escapes in history. It was a story of a divided country pulling together in the face of catastrophe, a lesson we learned after 9-11, and a lesson we should well relearn in a divided America today. The script was 129 page ensemble piece, brilliantly written, something even Julian Fellows (Downton Abby) would be proud of. I thought this was the type of film Hollywood didn’t know how to make anymore. It turns out, I was right.
Frankly up until this film, I had been a modest fan of Christopher Nolan “The Dark Knight”, the one who rewrote and directed the film. So I was curious to see what he did with the brilliant original script, till I learned that he entirely rewrote the original as a 76 page rewrite script. And, the film I saw had a much darker, edgy vision of Dunkirk. Not one of heroes, but of troops beaten up from war, running from the battle in a dog eat dog way to save their own lives without much concern for the others. There were a few heroic moments but not many so Nolan could keep his dark vision. It’s pretty much the standard Hollywood fare today that all war is hell and we should never get involved in it. This is not to say that war is to be glorified and there aren’t horrible moments like the “Saving Private Ryan” beach scene. But we’ve seen that in countless films since “Platoon” that illustrate the tragedy of war. And to be perfectly honest Nolan is only a slightly above average action and sci-fi writer and it seems like he cut the story to a 76 page bone so that he could have time to show off his great directorial and visual abilities. To me it looked like a self-indulgent director using the film as a vehicle to get an Oscar by doing a “serious”, dark, edgy film. Well, the visceral violence worked for Spielberg in “Saving Private Ryan” in getting him a directing Oscar. Another particularly irritating thing was the wall to wall overpowering “music” score. Normally a score works best when the audience rarely notices it, but this was so over the top that it was impossible not to. This is all the more surprising because the composer, Hans Zimmer, is one of the best in the business. So the only real explanation is that this wall of sound is what Nolan asked for both from the composer and the final sound remix. In some ways the conspicuous score kept an audience from noticing how weak some of the scenes were.
Dunkirk was a turning point in WWII. Had it not happened, England without a standing army might easily have been overrun by the Nazis and the world could be a very different place today; but that is almost completely left out of the film. And with millennials relying more and more on movies and television to get their history this may be the only version of Dunkirk they ever see. The sad thing is the real story of Dunkirk, the full story of the hopeful vision and heroism of thousands of Englishmen and women of all classes banding together, braving open seas and Nazi Spitfires in small boats to bring their boys home may never be fully told, because it is unlikely for a studio to spend this much money on the miracle of Dunkirk for at least another twenty years. All this because of a self-indulgent director catering to an Academy hungry for dark, edgy films so he could get his directing Oscar. I might just have to skip the next few Nolan films. You obviously can’t give him a great inspiring script to direct because he seems to have a magnified view of his writing abilities and an impulse to completely rewrite scripts or only direct his own dark scripts. He is a good director. If he’d only stick to what he’s good at and direct the script he is given. But be careful if you see the credit “Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan.”
Editor’s Note: Derrick Warfel is a Writer-Director-Producer, a graduate of Princeton University, a teacher in the L.A. School District, a Masters in Theology recipient, a college campus ministry director, a real estate agent, and an M.F.A. graduate from the U.S.C. Film School. He’s also worked as a script analyst and script doctor.