Christopher Nolan’s World War II thriller Dunkirk has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Director. This marks the first time that the Academy has seen fit to acknowledge Nolan, widely considered one of the best directors of his generation, with a nomination after arguably snubbing him three times earlier. In two of those cases, the snub was explainable, at least to some degree, while the third time just seemed like a deliberate slap in the face.
After making his debut in 1998 with the tiny indie Following, Nolan broke through and got the attention of Hollywood in 2001 with Memento. While he did land a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, he was perhaps too young and relatively unknown for a Best Director nod despite navigating the script’s time-twisting structure so effortlessly. The second big snub from the Academy was undoubtedly in 2008 when it passed over The Dark Knight for deserved Best Picture and Best Director nominations — while the film elevated the superhero genre to new levels of gravitas and sheer cinematic power, one could reason that the Academy simply wasn’t ready to give the genre any accolades (and it still really isn’t).
His last blow-off by the Academy was the most perplexing yet. 2010’s Inception was nominated in eight categories, including Best Picture, but the brilliant job that Nolan did with that mind-bending sci-fi heist epic was utterly ignored. At least two of the nominees that year — including winner Tom Hooper — did utterly unremarkable work. No one even remembers The King’s Speech these days, but they’ll be teaching the hotel corridor fight scene from Inception in film classes for years to come.
Which brings us to Dunkirk. As an admittedly unreserved fan of Nolan’s work, I was not completely enthralled with his epic retelling of the incredible rescue by sea of 400,000 British soldiers from a French beach. But on the level of pure cinematic craftsmanship, Dunkirk is an absolutely immersive and astonishing achievement that also utilizes the IMAX film format to its best advantage (and it looks damn good on Blu-ray, even on a smaller screen).
In scene after scene, Nolan puts the viewer right in the middle of the action, whether it’s in the sand with bombs dropping and exploding all around, in the hold of a sinking boat with water rushing in and bullets puncturing the hull or, most sensationally, in the cockpit of pilot Tom Hardy’s fighter as he engages in the aerial equivalent of hand-to-hand combat with his German counterparts. The movie takes place in three different timeframes, yet the story is told with clarity and brevity, Nolan even acknowledging the critics who say his scripts are too expository by scaling back on the film’s dialogue.
It’s another impressive achievement from a director who, even when his films fall short in some way (and I would argue that his last three — The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar and Dunkirk — all have their significant but not fatal flaws), always aims to elevate the art form or genre he’s working in. That word “visionary” gets thrown around a lot, but Nolan deserves that particular accolade: he swings for the fences every time out, and finds new ways to fuse art house ideas with widescreen, popular entertainment. I admit to personally thinking Dunkirk might have been his first box office letdown in years, but I’ll gladly eat another helping of crow on that particular misreading of the public.
The fact is that the directing achievement on Dunkirk surpasses that of the other nominees in many ways. Each of them — Jordan Peele for Get Out, Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird, Paul Thomas Anderson for Phantom Thread and Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water — have their considerable strengths, but not one of them can match the sheer command of technical and narrative filmmaking skills that are on display in Nolan’s picture. And yet the sad fact is that he will probably lose.
That’s because 2018 may not be the year for a war epic like Dunkirk, unless a slightly more old-school segment of the Academy voting membership dominates the proceedings. Most of this year’s top contenders are largely about reflecting the massive social changes we’re currently going through. The Shape of Water upends the conventional wisdom that bureaucratic white men always know best, making its heroes a mute woman, a gay man, and a humanoid fish. Lady Bird is about empowerment and finding one’s agency as a woman, while Get Out goes directly after racial and political stereotypes. Even some of the Best Picture nominees that did not earn a berth in the Best Director category — Call Me by Your Name and The Post among them — address issues impacting us right now.
That’s fine and how it should be — much of the best art always mirrors or comments on the society or culture around it. And whichever film wins Best Picture and/or Best Director will emerge victorious because the filmmaker is addressing that movie’s particular concerns in a powerful, entertaining and emotionally resonant way (which almost all of them do). Dunkirk may not have that same impact, even if the filmmaking and directing — on a purely cinematic level — are the best of the class.
But that’s okay too. I’d love to see Nolan win, not just for Dunkirk but in the larger sense for the ambition he’s brought to his entire filmography. And yet if he loses he may do so to another beloved filmmaker, Guillermo Del Toro, and it will be just as thrilling to see a person with such an unencumbered love of genre — a fan at heart to this day — achieve mainstream recognition. Or the award could go to Greta Gerwig, which would be deserving for entirely different reasons. Whatever happens, Nolan will be fine, and his track record will certainly allow him to keep making the kind of movies he wants to make. In the end, that’s all that matters.