Dunkirk has a lot of hype behind it. Director Christopher Nolan is one of our foremost filmmakers and he’s turned his eye towards history in a big way. It’s interesting to see a director with such clout go this particular route. It’s rare that historical war films are treated like grand epics and are widely recognized and adored. But, there is one example of that in cinematic history: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
The Last War Epic
Saving Private Ryan was an enormous undertaking. Spielberg wanted to capture World War II like no other film before. Hollywood has a long history of making grandiose war movies, especially in the wake of WWII. Saving Private Ryan was the culmination of all those films. It was widely beloved and took home a number of Oscars at the Academy Awards, including Best Director for Spielberg. Since then, no World War II film has ever quite reached the masses like Saving Private Ryan did.
Dunkirk is looking to change that. It’s clearly a testament to historical accuracy in regards to the look and feel of the era. It has the scope and polish of something truly special and momentous. This could be the first time in a while that a historical war film also has the sheen of an event film. However…
War Has Changed
Saving Private Ryan was released in a pre-9/11 world. Since then, America's attitudes and perception of war has changed drastically. Granted, Dunkirk takes place during a time that might as well be fictional to a large number of the population, but it is still a real event that had real consequences. Will that perspective alter how people want to approach these kinds of movies now? Are audiences primed to experience a dreary, harrowing war epic in the middle of the summer blockbuster season?
Dunkirk has a lot going for it, but it also has to contend with a change in peoples' desires. Escapism is the most successful brand of entertainment these days, and Dunkirk is a sharp reminder of the realities and costs of war. Maybe the world was more receptive to that before 2001. Maybe they still are and can view this film through the lens of history. We'll find out when Dunkirk opens in theaters on July 21.