I was perhaps unreasonably excited to see "Dunkirk," Christopher Nolan’s new movie about the evacuation of British forces from a French beach during World War II. The historical event on which it is based is astonishing: unable to get enough warships close to the beach to load their fleeing troops, the British government mobilized a flotilla of small private craft, which ultimately helped evacuate more than 330,000 soldiers ahead of the German army. I was eager to see what one of my favorite directors would do with the story.
He did not disappoint. This nearly flawless film put me on the edge of my seat for two hours. It is the best thing I’ve seen about war since the stunning opening of "Saving Private Ryan" -- and Nolan, bless him, is not prey to Steven Spielberg’s compulsion to mar his creations by slopping them over with speechy goo.
As with all of Nolan’s films, it’s emotionally distant from its characters. Cillian Murphy plays an officer credited only as “Shivering Soldier,” and none of the characters have much in the way of backstory or goals, other than survival. Matt Zoller Seitz calls it an “Ant Farm Picture,” a portrait of society in which individuals are almost incidental. That’s rather the point.
A lesser director would have given in to the temptation to make this a story about the righteous crusade against the Germans, men fighting other men, but Nolan shows us a world in which the enemy is a plane, a torpedo, the water and the flying bullets, and men are reduced to little more than their rage to live.
The result is less a war film than a disaster movie. An exquisite disaster movie. I didn’t expect such a vivid and visceral illustration of how quickly a ship can sink, or just how difficult it is to hit a target in the sky. I left the theater almost too overwhelmed to talk.
Having recovered, I began to wonder why we can’t have more pictures like "Dunkirk." The easy answer is, of course, that there is only one Christopher Nolan, and only so many people willing to give him $150 million to spend putting thousands of extras and some World War II-era ordnance onto a French beach. But the easy answer is incomplete.
It is getting rarer for a genius like Nolan to be given substantial sums of money to put their vision on the screen. Instead, the substantial sums go to “franchise films.” The pursuit of blockbuster movies is becoming less of an act of creation, and more an exercise in brand management. Franchises generate box office revenue, merchandising revenue and what economists call option value: "Furious 7" does not simply bring ticket revenue for the studio, but also the ability to make more revenue through Fast and Furious Episodes 8, 9, 10 and onward to "The Fast and the Furious 987."
Naturally, such valuable properties cannot be left to the quirky whims of some individual; studios have intervened more and more heavily to ensure that no director goes too far off the rails. As with other markets where mass franchises have taken over, the result is a sort of flattening of the available quality: There aren’t so many truly awful blockbusters being made anymore, but there aren’t so many truly great ones either. Indeed, there aren’t so many big movies being made at all, because studios find it much more attractive to rake in cash off of a predictable comic book film with a big global audience than to make risky bets on greatness.
In some ways it looks like a return to the studio system of yore, with its factory-like control over every aspect of production. But in the old days, the studios were mostly making lots of cheap films fast. The studios could afford to permit a little more variance, a little more creativity and serendipity, because the bets were reasonably small, and even an oddball picture might find an audience somewhere. But if the old studio system was a well diversified industry placing lots of bets -- the cinematic equivalent of an index fund -- the modern system is looking more and more like a hedge fund taking a few giant positions. When all the bets are potential firm-killers, the investment committee is going to want to oversee every detail, leaving less room for genius to emerge, much less thrive.
One reason "Dunkirk" is such a joy is that here is a film in which the deadening hand of the committee is nowhere evident. A committee would have wanted something with more merchandising and tie-in opportunities (“Just a thought: What if the captain of the destroyer is drinking a Diet Coke? Then we could give his action figure a detachable can that fits in his right hand.…”) A committee would have wanted a lovable band of misfits who could be taken into sequels. (“No, this is terrific: Next time, instead of fleeing France, they invade it!”)
A committee would have wanted all the mawkish paraphernalia of the modern war picture -- the rumpled photograph of the girl back home, the square-jawed lead who learns a Very Important Lesson about leadership and loyalty, and the speeches, oh Lord, the speeches, about what war is, and what it all means. Even the pictures that explicitly reject the cheap and easy sentimentality of the modern war movie are still hung up on rejecting it. Nolan simply ignores it, and does something infinitely more interesting.
That this movie got made at all in modern Hollywood strikes me as a minor miracle, an undeserved blessing for which we should all be intensely grateful. But it also makes me a little sad. It’s not that “no adult movies” get made anymore, as you sometimes hear: There are indie films, small films, studio-produced “Oscar bait” for the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But the franchise pictures keep sucking up more of the oxygen in the room, threatening to strangle both the mid-budget “serious” films and the large summer blockbusters featuring one director’s original vision -- ironic, considering that it was two such pictures, George Lucas’s “Star Wars” and Spielberg’s “Jaws,” that started Hollywood down its current road. (Never mind that one was retroactively franchised as "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope" and the other was followed by sequels more painful than being eaten by a shark.)
As the “tentpole” picture increasingly becomes the main product of Hollywood, and directors are selected for their ability to please a committee, how many more memorable big films can we hope to get?
When a legend like Spielberg has so much trouble getting "Lincoln" into theaters that it comes “this close” to ending up on HBO, you have to wonder if the days of the original creative project are numbered within the studio system.
If the flotilla of small craft disappears, all we’ll have left is a few big ships drifting inoffensively in international waters -- and a lot of moviegoers stranded on the beach.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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