Dunkirk, the much anticipated film from Christopher Nolan, is finally out this week and it is already receiving quite a bit of praise. At the time of writing this, it has a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the word “masterpiece” has been thrown around in relation to it more than any other film in recent memory.
In spite of the all of the early accolades, there is a shadow over this film that it cannot avoid. Being a war film, it will inevitably draw comparisons to the war film of this generation, Saving Private Ryan. Despite coming out nearly 20 years ago, Saving Private Ryan still stands as the seminal war film by which all others are measured. Basically any war film set since the turn of the 20th century will be compared to it.
This is for good reason of course, as it is not only one of the best war films ever made, but one of the best films of the past quarter century. As such, before a proper conversation about Dunkirk can take place, the elephant in the room must be addressed, and how Dunkirk may offer a different experience.
Blood and Guts
One of the first aspects of the two films that will differentiate the two is that Dunkirk is rated PG-13 while Saving Private Ryan (Ryan) is rated R. This may seem like a small detail, but it is one that can have a significant effect on the tone of a film.
Recall the opening scene of Ryan. It takes place on the beaches of Normandy where the U.S. soldiers were storming in order to break up the German lines. What takes place is one the most intense battle scenes ever made. The realism, the fear, the pain, the death and ultimately the victory are all enforced by the intense violence and gore of the scene. Soldiers were killed before they could even make it off the landers and their blood dyeing the waters. Others had their limbs blown off, with one soldier walking around in shock trying to take is dismembered arm with him up the beach. Soldiers were fodder for the MG’s and were killed by the dozen. For more than 20 minutes, the audience is exposed to the horrors of war in a way that was unmatched thanks in part to the realism of the violence and gore. And that is only possible in a film that is rated R.
Not even the camera is spared from the blood spilled in the opening scene.
Dunkirk does not have the option to portray the war in that way, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. An imitator of Ryan would never be able to reach the same heights of the original, so any film that wants to achieve the same accolades would need to take a different approach. A PG-13 rating on Dunkirk essentially forces it into a different direction.
Not to belittle the impacts of, or scenes of warfare, but it is something that has been touched on and tried nearly ad nauseam since Ryan was made. It portrayed the real dangers of war, while other war films have decided to take a closer look at the impact a war has on the individual soldier.
Having tried to avoid as much info about the film as possible, I only have the trailers to go off of; I have even kept myself willfully ignorant of the actual events that took place at Dunkirk. Seeing as how this article is not meant to spoil, we will use the trailers as the basis for making our assumptions. Based on them, it appears that this film is not so much focusing on the individual soldiers, but more so on the significance of the event itself. The work of the soldiers on the ground, on the ships and in the air coupled with the efforts of the civilians will be the focal point of Dunkirk over the trauma of the war.
Why so Schmaltzy?
Another key difference between the two films that will make them different experiences is their directors. Ryan was the directed by Steven Spielberg, while Dunkirk is directed by Nolan. The two directors have very differing styles which will ensure that the two films have a different feel tonally as well as visually.
Ryan has many of the usual Spielberg touches, one of which is schmaltziness. There is a certain sentimentality that nearly every Spielberg film has, and Ryan is no different. While relatively toned down, especially compared to some of his later films, there are definite downtimes in Ryan which allow time for characters to develop and for the audience to develop an attachment to them. While relatively infrequent, they do stand out, and are key to giving the film the Spielberg charm. Ryan is nothing if not realistic and gruesome, but there are moments of downtime which allows for the Spielberg schmaltz to shine through.
Conversely, Nolan films lack that element of sentimentality for the most part. Interstellar had its fair share of cheesy lines, but in general, Nolan films tend to be more uniform; the tone is very consistent throughout the films and does not wavier. This gives Nolan films a tone that is typically darker and more grounded in reality. Dunkirk should operate in the same way, with the overall tone of the film begin consistent from start to finish with even moments of downtime carrying the same sort of weight that the rest of the film possesses.
In addition to their general tonal differences, the two films should look markedly different.
Ryan is shot mostly handheld so that the audience is in the middle of the action alongside the characters on screen. The pacing during battle is frenetic and intense which gives a feeling of anxiousness and discomfort with every second during the battles. Further, the film was treated in such a way that it washed out the colors and gave the film a look that mimicked the sort of news reels which would have shown this type of footage during the war.
Nolan films have a very different look to them. One does not need to see the trailers to know this. He is very well known for his visual style which mostly involves sharp images and colors. The camera will not operate as another soldier on the battlefield as it does in Ryan, and should instead be more of an omnipotent force that can see everything with clarity. Instead of focusing on the micro of the battles next to the individual soldiers, the camera will focus on the macro of the events and how the many different pieces involved interact with each other to shape the events of the film. There will be no shortage of visual spectacle in Dunkirk, which is Nolan’s strength.
Dunkirk will have a look that is far different from Saving Private Ryan, which will help differentiate the feel of the two films.
Despite both being war films that take place during the same war, expect these two films to be very different experiences. Dunkirk is already off to an excellent start, and, though it will not happen, it should be viewed on its own merit. Will it be better than Saving Private Ryan? Who knows, it is difficult to say. Ryan is one of the most definitive war films of all time, and it would take a film of monolithic proportions to overtake it as the standard bearer for all war films that follow. Will this be the only article on the internet comparing Dunkirk and Ryan? Of course not. Will there be di hard fans of both each making the case that their film is the superior war film until the end of the cosmos? Naturally, it is the internet after all.
Ultimately, it may take decades for a film to usurp Ryan; it is a masterpiece that was able to accomplish something at a level that have never been done previously. Dunkirk does not have to top Ryan in order to establish its own legacy. As long as it is a high quality film that accomplishes its goal with a high level of execution, then it won’t need to worry about comparisons to Ryan as it will have accomplished the same thing. Until then, let us all take the weekend to make our own judgement and see if Dunkirk can live up to all the hype, and if it truly does deserve to be compared to Saving Private Ryan.