Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk and his Cinematic Ideology

Across the last week, since the release of his latest movie Dunkirk, much has been written about Christopher Nolan, as always happens whenever he puts a picture out. Nolan may be the most divisive mainstream, heavyweight filmmaker working in cinema today. Some believe he’s a genius. Some believe he’s Stanley Kubrick reborn. Some even believe he’s a rampant Conservative and his films are nothing more than ‘Tory Porn’.

You would do well, incidentally, to read the writing of my friend and super-talented pop culture writer Darren Mooney on Nolan recently, as its insightful, filled with wisdom and there’s every chance he’s not done on the subject yet, simply because the gaggle of voices weighing in on Nolan once again has reached fever pitch. Is Dunkirk a masterpiece? Or is it yet another piece of super-overrated cinema from a filmmaker who can’t see past his own delusions of grandeur? For me, it’s the former, but this is coming from someone who has always considered Nolan to be, if not the greatest living cinematic auteur, then at least among the top five.

What interests me is the accusation he is a Conservative filmmaker when a titanic weight of evidence suggests quite the opposite. Do read the above linked article with the accusation, much as partly I’m loathe to link to it – despite having been written by someone very pleased with their prose, someone with visible disdain for modern film criticism and a level of bitterness toward politics in general, it nonetheless outlines an argument with a level of brevity. Frankly it’s not a piece worth dwelling on and picking apart because some of the arguments are lunacy, but what it does is raise an interesting question: just where does Nolan, and his films, stand on the political spectrum?

Dark Knight Rises

This may not seem an important question about filmmakers but frequently cinema as a whole is directed by the politics of the men and women behind the camera. For instance, the films of Michael Bay or Clint Eastwood are dripping with frequently right-wing, often jingoistic visions of a capitalist America which should hold its head up high (Eastwood at least has the intelligence to throw the occasional level of ambiguity in there, admittedly). On the flip side, Ken Loach for example could not be more of a British socialist filmmaker if he tried, with his searing recent I, Daniel Blake evidence of pure anti-austerity polemic.

Nolan’s politics therefore, certainly in the wake of making a film like Dunkirk, is important in both framing the kind of cinema he makes, and to potentially mount a certain defence against those who would label him a ‘Tory propagandist’. Such a claim is patently untrue and serves the agenda of, in the case of the above journalist, what feels like an anti-Nolan, anti-Hollywood crusade. Look, whether Nolan is a good or bad filmmaker is immaterial. That’s not the point. Most people are in agreement Dunkirk is a fantastic picture and, usually, the crowd turn out objectively to be right. What matters is how you label a man like Nolan, because by doing that you label what matters more too: his cinema.

Frankly, calling Nolan a Tory propagandist is too easy. He was born in Westminster, right at the heart of British power politics. His father worked in advertising and his American mother was a teacher. His childhood was split between London and Chicago. He went to a prestigious London university and read English Literature, all the while having the security and freedom to experiment with cinema from a very very young age. Nolan, and his successful writer/TV producer brother Jonathan (now doing terrific work on Westworld), didn’t precisely come from privilege but nor were they raised in recession or austerity.

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These factors do not, however, a Tory make. Nolan—alongside his producer wife Emma Thomas—has done a very good job at keeping himself, largely, out of celebrity circles and the limelight. He wants the work he produces to speak for itself and its on the work, solely, Nolan should be judged. Did he vote Conservative at the last General Election? My instinct would be ‘no’ but the answer doesn’t matter. He can vote for whoever he wants, believe in whatever he wants. What matters is the work. What matters is the cinema he makes. Cinema, on the whole, which simply does not give off the smell of Tory rhetoric, even Thatcherism as the above article leverages at him.

A reminder of my advice to read Darren Mooney for a better exploration of the subject, but the relationship between Nolan and the audience in terms of his films is unusual for a filmmaker of his stature. For every two people who hail him as a master, another will be laughing at you in the face for it. For one person who sees the beauty in Interstellar, another will tell you its a corny, badly-made re-imagining of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That example in particular is galling; just because Nolan is clearly inspired by Kubrick, and is a self-confessed huge fan of 2001 (who isn’t?), does not make him a Kubrick copycat. Mooney quite rightly argues Nolan has more in common with Alfred Hitchcock.

Nolan’s cinematic catalogue begins with crime pictures, ones which are full of experimentation in nature. Following, his micro-budget first picture from 1998 filmed with friends across London, is shot in black & white and is a shorter, more existential, verite picture than anything you might imagine from him. 2000’s Memento starring Guy Pierce, which ascended him rapidly into the big time, played with linear narrative structure in working backwards, focused on a murder. 2002’s Insomnia, very much Nolan’s Scandinavian-style murder mystery, for which he was recruited by Steven Soderbergh, is more conventional but teases powerful performances, some against type.

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None would have been regarded as ‘prestige’ pictures, which is what Mooney argues ties him to Hitchcock, recognised now as perhaps the greatest 20th century auteur but long condemned for making sleazy, sexually-charged crime pictures. The accusation levelled at Nolan is that his films are emotionally distant, often pulp disguised as high art, and filled with style over substance. It’s what often, erroneously, ties him to Kubrick, even though Nolan values emotion and catharsis in his characters far more than Stanley, for all his greatness, ever did. Politically, however, do these early films mark him out as substantially Tory or particularly liberal either way? Not really.

You can also argue The Prestige in 2006, his first significant fusion of blockbuster with genre stylistics given the twisty-turny, magic-based slight of hand narrative he employs, is the beginning of how Nolan starts being defined as a divisive auteur, because The Prestige is truly the first picture from Nolan which starts to open up the grand, mythological and philosophical scope he would employ in all of his pictures henceforth – a trick he repeats and builds on with increased labryrinthian, Greek mythical allusions in 2010’s Inception. Batman Begins in 2005, his first major blockbuster, had those elements but still played to a degree in a traditional, if extremely impressive, narrative and visual sandbox. Nolan eclipsed that stylistically with The Dark Knight in 2008.

Quite how Nolan adapts and pitches Batman is the first indication of his enigmatic politics and how its beginning to get in the way. It would be very easy to make Batman not just a tortured hero thanks to his superhero backstory of losing his parents, but counter-balance the vapid indulgence of Bruce Wayne with Batman being a crusading vigilante who ‘cleans up’ Gotham City, by proxy ‘cleans up America’. What does Nolan do instead? He turns ‘the Batman’ into a twisted symbol of corruption and destroys him, figuratively in The Dark Knight and then quite literally in The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, when Tom Hardy’s Bane breaks Bruce’s back.

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The Dark Knight presents Gotham, remember the proxy of America writ small, as one rampant with a corruption which ends up consuming the all-American heroic politician in the making, Harvey Dent; indeed its almost prescient in how, in America specifically, the office of government has become a bad joke, and perhaps as dangerous as the anarchy Heath Ledger’s Joker represents. The Joker is analogous to modern terrorism; unpredictable, wearing masks, filled with reasons and rationales which are interchangeable, and ultimately with one goal: to just see the world the West has created burn. The Joker, like ISIS or equivalent, have no master plan. They just *are*.

Could a filmmaker with right wing leanings have made such a film as The Dark Knight? A film which suggests the very heart of politics and righteousness is corrupt and symbols can only lose in the face of anarchy. Even more so, could a right wing filmmaker have made The Dark Knight Rises? That recently was described as ‘right-wing’ by an observer on Twitter which is patently absurd. The Dark Knight Rises, by its very title, is darkly satirical; the Batman crawls out of a literal, metaphorical pit but he only successfully defeats Bane and his revolutionaries by raising an army of the common people, the uncorrupted, to save Gotham from itself.

Nolan’s very point with The Dark Knight Rises concerns social revolution. Gotham may have almost eliminated crime, may not technically need a symbol like the Batman, but this just allows Bane and his zealots to swoop in and play their fake news card. Again, Nolan’s film is terrifyingly prescient about the rise of right-wing thinking; his film is not right-wing but Bane might as well be a certain President for how he twists words, twists ideas, twists ideologies in order to present himself as the ‘saviour’ of Gotham from the very institutions which have taken wealth and power away from ‘the people’. Bane uses liberal rhetoric against the people of Gotham in order to construct what turns out to be Talia al-Ghul’s quest for vengeance.

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The idea of social revolution, or liberal revolution at least, within The Dark Knight Rises is growing more powerful by the day. Bane now hasn’t just taken Gotham, he’s taken the White House, and Nolan quite frankly saw this coming. The same can be said for climate change, which Nolan proves himself an adherent of and believer in with his next film, 2014’s Interstellar. That original concept posits a near-future world where crops no longer grow thanks to environmental conditions we as a society could have prevented, forcing scientists to develop an interstellar vessel to find us a new home when Earth must be sundered.

No right-wing filmmaker could have made Interstellar either, nor indeed could a filmmaker with the kind of dispassion Kubrick had. Hokey to some as the message may be, Nolan again presents a liberal, progressive outlook, as he did with The Dark Knight Rises and its message that symbols don’t defeat fascists, people from all classes and distinctions working together with a common ideology do.

For Interstellar, it’s about the power of love overcoming universal distances, barriers and time itself. It’s a much less political picture than a philosophical, metaphysical one, but the commentary on the importance of protecting our world from natural elements could not be clearer. One can only imagine Nolan’s face when the US pulled out of the Paris Accords earlier this year.

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This year brings us to Dunkirk, the first picture people are suggesting Nolan may end up Oscar nominated for. Aside from the fact such recognition from the Academy is over a decade overdue, it speaks to the fact the consideration of Nolan as a pulp filmmaker playing in genres not worth recognition being true, with Dunkirk his first ‘serious’ film about a ‘proper’ subject. Much as Dunkirk might (let me stress *might*) be his masterwork of masterworks, the suggestion its his first film that deserves critical recognition is asinine. Dunkirk also, without a shadow of a doubt, cements Nolan as if not a socialist, then certainly a left-leaning liberal thinker.

My thoughts on Dunkirk provide greater detail but Nolan’s picture is all about the futility and desperation of war. A jingoistic, right-wing filmmaker would never make Dunkirk because its a story about survivors, not winners. Even the common soldier saying the words of Winston Churchill’s famous “we will fight them on the beaches” speech at the end, after survival, rings hollow. Nolan has always been a filmmaker who believes in hope, in the triumph of the human spirit, but he always questions ‘at what cost?’. None of his protagonists triumph, find hope, without changing or losing something of themselves or the world around them. Dunkirk is no different.

It’s a defiantly anti-war film in just how it depicts the horror of war, played indeed much more as survival horror than a traditional war picture. There are no whiter than white heroes. There are no clearly defined villains for us to shake our fists at or gun down for comic-book style effect. There is a strong pro-European message. It was ironic to see Nigel Farage on Twitter suggesting young people all see the film; did he baulk at Kenneth Branagh’s Naval commander electing to stay and help the French under siege from the German war machine? If he didn’t he’s even more of a right-wing hypocrite. Nolan, for certain, is not within his company.

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In an age when we seem to be sliding toward dystopia, where the President of the United States practically seems gleeful at the idea of conflict with North Korea, where the Russian bear flexes its muscles, and where the anarchy of un-defined terrorism beats down our door, Christopher Nolan’s latest film is a stark warning of what conflict costs us. No Tory sends that message. No right-wing filmmaker truly believes that.

Like Nolan’s films or don’t, at least understand them for what they are, not what people with an agenda may want them to be.

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