Dunkirk and the Hamilton Effect

Christopher Nolan, the acclaimed director of such films as the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, returns to the big screen this weekend with Dunkirk, his eagerly-anticipated World War II epic.  It’s been a while since we last saw Nolan, whose last film Interstellar was released back in 2014, so expectations are running high for the man, who in my humble opinion, has never made a bad movie.  And so far most of the critics seem to agree, with Dunkirk scoring an incredible 91% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Brian Truitt of USA Today is among those who loved the movie, saying, “It’s less a movie and more a close encounter of the combative kind: You feel every bolt rattle in the cockpit of a dogfighting Spitfire, every stressful moment with the choice of drowning or surfacing in an oil fire, and every thought of certain doom for the infantrymen trapped on a beach when a bomb comes whizzing out of the sky.”  Makes you want to run over to the nearest cineplex and buy a ticket, doesn’t it?  But then Truitt remembers he’s writing for the mainstream media, and inserts this little caveat at the end of his review:

[T]he fact that there are only a couple of women and no lead actors of color may rub some the wrong way. Still, Nolan’s feat is undeniable: He’s made an immersive war movie that celebrates the good of mankind while also making it clear that no victory is without sacrifice.

Yes, you read that right.  He dings Nolan for not casting a woman or an actor of color in a leading role–even though women and people of color didn’t figure much in the actual events at Dunkirk.  I’d chalk this up as just another sucker punch if Truitt wasn’t being so inspid.  As it stands, his comment reads more like boilerplate that all culture critics are required to insert in their reviews, kind of like the disclaimers in a Viagra ad.  If your offense lasts longer than four hours, please consult Twitter immediately.

Call it the Hamilton effect:  the obligation to recast history so that instead of boring old white guys, we have a multiethnic coalition doing all the moving and the shaking and changing the world.  Lin-Manuel Miranda uses this to great effect in his musical about the founding of our great nation, and I have to admit it’s a great conceit:  American history is, after all, a story we all share, so why not modernize it with some creative casting and a dash of hip-hop?  Audiences love it, and if it gets the kids interested in the events that shaped our nation, so much the better.

There is a difference, however, between staging a musical about the Founding Fathers and creating a movie about a historical event in which verisimilitude is of paramount importance.  Nobody goes into Hamilton thinking it’s an accurate portrayal of what really happened in the room where it all happens.  In Dunkirk, on the other hand, audiences would probably double over in laughter if the troops, while stranded on the beach awaiting rescue, suddenly all broke Cop Rock-style into a song and dance number about the loneliness of their plight.  They’re expecting realism–and, realistically, the people who fought at Dunkirk were pretty much white and male.

This simple concept seems to evade some critics, who think that historical films should share the Hamilton sensibility.  But whereas Hamilton is metaphorical, Dunkirk is a slap of cold, hard fact:  The British were defeated, the Germans seemed unstoppable, and the men trapped on that beach faced death at the hands of a relentless enemy.  In the midst of that terror, ordinary people rose to the occasion and snatched away a victory that would give Great Britain the hope that it could endure.

We can be grateful that Christopher Nolan understood that story for what it was, and felt no need to pander.

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Marc Giller

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