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We are a naturally competitive species and with anything that is familiar or similar, we tend to draw comparisons and take to ranking. Be it with who has the best family doctor to the most delicious flavor of ice cream, we assign one better, and when feelings are added, real battles begin. So it is with movies, a medium that invites personal investment and interpretation and then stages it against widespread collective opinions.
For nearly twenty years, one film in the war genre has topped all others, being king where many underlings might deserve the same title. Steven Spielberg‘s Saving Private Ryan is considered one of the greatest ever made with its groundbreaking re-enactment of the Normandy Invasion a testament to the film’s legacy, one where a culmination of things came together in a perfect storm, including a director at his peak, visual effects reaching their zenith, and a lead actor maturing to be his generation’s most accomplished stars. It was a benchmark in cinema and earned the highest of praise for its story, direction, and acting. It seemed no other war film could compare and would leave all others to live under its mighty shadow.
Now comes Dunkirk, a new film by Christopher Nolan that takes place in the same war in the same country, on a beach with desperate soldiers and surprisingly, does something new. The knee-jerk reaction is to start comparing and claim one over the other, but are they really alike? And is one ‘better’ than the other? The two films are similar in theme but in fact, aside from the basic setting, are anything but. Let’s compare.
To begin with, Saving Private Ryan is all about the story. Once it gets past the shocking opening, it settles deep into the mission of a few men led by Captain Miller (Hanks) to try and rescue the last son of an American family, played by Matt Damon. It’s a highly-personal tale that follows a harrowing journey through France against tremendous odds, some not making it with questions arising about the value of losing so many to save only one. The focus remains on Miller, but he is surrounded by well-defined characters we come to know and care about very well.
Dunkirk on the other is about an event and the people in it are far less defined, purposefully so. They are nearly metaphorical, representative of more than themselves. This doesn’t make them less personal, only less intimate. We know nothing of their backgrounds, or even how they came to be on the beach, only that they are in a fight to survive. Take Saving Private Ryan‘s opening twenty minutes and expand it for more than two hours. That’s the core of Dunkirk. It’s about a community rather than the individual. Both are highly impactful but for different reasons. We want these few men in Saving Private Ryan to live. In Dunkirk, it is everyone.
Nolan and Spielberg are two of the best in the industry and are recognized as innovators and pioneers in cinema. With Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg brought us hyper-realism like we’d never seen before. It was traumatic and unnerving. He stages the film into very specific parts so that we begin very large and end very small. Starting with the epic Normandy sequence, it is a cacophony of bodies in battle as we slowly get introduced to the main characters. It then proceeds to whittle away at that space, taking us from the sweeping moments of armies against each other to that of conflicts between two people. It’s a clever way to make a point about the war and is undeniably haunting.
With Dunkirk, Nolan keeps it about the effort, and while there are a few specific characters we follow, none are meant to have the same effect as those in Saving Private Ryan. Each represents the whole. Take Tom Hardy‘s Spitfire pilot. He has a name but it is barely mentioned, instead, he is mostly masked for the duration of the movie, only his eyes visible through the flight goggles. That’s because, like so many of the characters, he is not an individual more than a symbol, a person that is all pilots, and so are the others, all soldiers, all people. In Nolan’s deft hands, it’s equally affecting. Remarkably so.
Both Spielberg and Nolan rely heavily on music to tell their stories, and both men have come to depend on their own favorite composer to make that happen, Spielberg with John Williams and Nolan with Hans Zimmer. The two composers take very different approaches though. Williams is sweeping and inviting, generating inspiration and imagination. His work is both greatly emotional and yet never so much that it steals from the film, sometimes so perfectly baked into a scene, you forget it’s there, its majesty only understood after it’s over. There’s a reason the guy has earned 50 Academy Award nominations.
Zimmer is also a remarkable craftsman, though Nolan uses him with a much heavier hand, making the bombastic scores seem to live and breath as part of the story, the unique sounds and orchestrations coming to define characters and events as if they were organic to them. Dunkirk is one such example as the score is incredibly dominant, drowning out even the combat it supports, but this is what gives the film its pulse, and Zimmer elicits such emotion from the audience, to be without it would be to lose nearly all of the film.
It’s tempting to say that one film is better than the other, however every true cinema fan knows the folly in doing so. Those that have allowed Saving Private Ryan to gestate and settle in as the greatest war film ever made might be hard pressed – probably out of nostalgia – to consider Nolan’s new masterpiece as a contender. Others, taken by the breathtaking authenticity and magnificence of Nolan’s epic might be more easily agreed to make this the new king of the genre.
What’s great about both is their differences, yes, but more so their kindred lineage, both giving honorable stage to important historical events that deserve remembrance. That’s really the takeaway, that perhaps both movies can stand side-by-side as documents of history, encouraging viewers to seek and learn more.