Revisionist History

Published on August 25th, 2017

Alex writes about Dunkirk and Detroit, with a focus on Christopher Nolan and Kathryn Bigelow’s approach to presenting history.

As I walked out of Detroit, I was thinking about a few things. “How could such a well-directed, intriguingly structured picture have such woefully terrible dialogue?” I pondered while walking down a broken escalator. “How can you be so blind to not see that casting a very dramatic John Krasinski in a very dramatic film shot in cinema verite style is still only going to make me think of Jim Halpert?” And then, I had an idiotic idea.

“Maybe I should write something comparing Detroit to Dunkirk, about how one succeeds where the other fails. Also, get to the bottom of this Halpert situation.” By the time I got to the bottom of the escalator, I realized that was a stupid idea, something generated from a brain desperate to keep churning despite not having written anything in a while. It was a something instead of nothing idea, and something instead of nothing is the antithesis of what I want to be doing. For somebody with no financial stake in getting people to read his work, this was a waste of time.

Until, of course, I thought about it some more. And then, of course, I thought about it even more.

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The main difference between Detroit and Dunkirk has little to do with the films as a whole; it mostly applies to their differing approach to dialogue. Dunkirk famously eschews dialogue at any point it can, while Detroit features about as much conversing as you would reasonably expect a film with (approximately) four hundred and fifteen speaking parts to include. Put simply, in order to pick out the flaws in Nolan’s dramatic retelling of a historical event, you had to look for it in the image itself, while Bigelow’s more conventional take on a different historical event only needed you to listen to hear the flaws in screenwriter Mark Boal’s rhapsodizing. Fewer people will notice a whitewashing of an army when all the cues are visual, but when characters start yelling their moral stances at other characters who then yell back about their opposing moral stances, it’s easy to pick the ideas apart. We all know how to vocalize our thoughts, but transferring them to a visual is more difficult, a translation that not everybody in a film audience can immediately grasp.

Perhaps the best example of this dichotomy can be looked at through a pair of Paul Greengrass films, United 93 and Green Zone. In the former, the story of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11 is told with almost no talk of all the complicated questions that would eventually arise out of 9/11. There’s a lot more dialogue than Dunkirk, but the pervading idea is ‘we’re simply going to show this event, and our best estimation of how it might have happened.’ Characters on both sides of the struggle are fully formed humans, but they never sit down and talk about capital I-issues due to the situation the movie is covering. With Green Zone, there are fully formed characters on each side – primarily Matt Damon’s character and his translator Freddie – but the movie falls apart when Freddie stops the film’s climactic action, turns almost directly to the camera, and says a line that’s way too similar to the “Look at what they make you give” line that appears in multiple Bourne films. Unsurprisingly, United 93 is better than Green Zone.

I saw Detroit about a week and a half after its release, and there was already much brouhaha over how it treated the Algiers Motel incident in question, and how no meaningful black female voices were heard over the course of the film. These concerns can (of course) be covered up by Boal and Bigelow’s steadfast, journalistic commitment to covering the story, but that (of course) can also be a cop out, a quarrel the duo are already well versed in.

When Zero Dark Thirty was released in late 2012, there was an ongoing, exhausting discussion about the film’s depiction of torture, specifically that the movie seemed to imply Osama Bin Laden was killed because others were tortured for information leading to Bin Laden’s capture. That was certainly my conclusion at the time, along with the vast majority of viewers. Boal and Bigelow said they were merely reporting facts, penning a screenplay by way of reportage, but it’s not much of a stretch to believe the facts they were getting were a result of some mild to major CIA massaging. Boal and Bigelow’s sources were primarily people with a vested interest in promoting the use of torture, meaning their sources were those with the ability to torture. You can research the shit out of something, but if you trust a faulty source, it’s all for naught.

Now, this is where I interject to say I feel Zero Dark Thirty as a whole was widely misinterpreted by the masses. I concur that the movie rather pointedly says torture lead to Bin Laden’s death, but I also feel like the end point of the movie is that a blind obsession with a goal destroys the person with that obsession. The film has more in common with There Will Be Blood than it does with something like 24. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is involved in the torture of others, has to more or less retire from any sort of social life to work as hard as she deems necessary, sees a friend die throughout her quest, and after Bin Laden is finally killed, she goes back to a plane and cries. This is the end of the movie. Maya has accomplished her goal, and now she gets to finally sit and reflect on what she had to do to accomplish it, and that reflection leads to her breaking down in tears while Alexandre Desplat’s initial sparse, plucky notes swell into an orchestra of recollection. But again, this is not something people picked up on, because this is not something that was depicted using words.

Kathryn Bigelow and Christopher Nolan are both fantastically talented directors. The difference in the approach they take to historical events with Detroit and Dunkirk seems to be that Bigelow wants to tell us what to think, while Nolan merely wants to show us an event and let us parse it for ourselves. Perhaps Bigelow was annoyed by the controversy over the use of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, and she wanted to make a movie where her ideas were fully spelled out. We all missed the subtler ideas in Zero Dark Thirty, she thought, so she made sure almost none of the ideas in her new film were subtle.

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There will never be a film adaptation of a historical event that will please everybody (mostly because there are no films that please everybody). As I continued walking home, I wondered why people like Bigelow with more vocal historical film ideas even bother with the venture. In the best-case scenario, your film is lauded critically in the short term but will be mostly unseen and probably not age particularly well. The vast majority of these films are totally unseen and forgotten about (mostly because the vast majority of films are totally unseen and forgotten about).

Reading reviews of Detroit, it’s hard to avoid feeling like critics are using the film to voice their own opinions on current events (albeit obliquely), not unlike Bigelow and Boal did in making the film (albeit obviously). I can only imagine how those reviews would have read if Detroit had been released on August 18th as opposed to August 4th.

I do not have interesting thoughts on Charlottesville and the following outcry, only thoughts that can be described as “from the mind of somebody who enjoyed the film Detroit and who also does not hate minorities.” It did, however, make me think about how this period in history will be reflected in future films. Perhaps there will be a Bigelow-ian film about the Charlottesville riots one day, presumably shot by Barry Ackroyd if he is still working. I would imagine this event or some other from the past couple of years will be made into some sort of a historical film one day, and I can only imagine it will be boring. This hypothetical film will have characters yelling about civil rights, hypothetical characters who are preaching to a choir of Netflixers who already agreed with the idea anyway. And some people watching that film will voice what it got wrong, because that’s what will always happen.

As my screening of Detroit ended, a couple five or so seats away from me started talking about how they couldn’t believe something like that could happen. Again, this is a phrase that one day (and already has) been used to describe the events of the past couple of years repeatedly. But what these films can never capture is the visceral feeling of watching a real event unfold in real time, even if you’re only watching the unfolding on Twitter. Somehow, viewing Charlottesville from the lobby of a movie theatre on my phone was more intense than Detroit’s privileged angles of a well-constructed, thoughtful suspense film. If a filmmaker as immensely talented as Kathryn Bigelow can’t make a pointed docudrama work, perhaps nobody can.

And this, again, is the greatest success of Dunkirk. It is a film that realizes rhapsodizing is for naught, and that saving your commentary for the last scene and the last scene only is a better way to make it felt. Dunkirk beats us around with loudness and intensity, as is Nolan’s wont, but it ends up making a more visceral statement by doing so. Does it teach us much? Not really, and I think it will settle as a mid-tier Nolan film when enough time passes to look at his filmography from a distance. But it does make us feel something, even if it’s just “holy shit that was intense” which is a stronger statement than anything Jim Halpert ever yelled at me about civil rights.

It is impossible to tell people what to think with words alone. Filmmakers have been trying for a long time to figure this out with little success, but it seems mild improvements have been made. That’s little hope, I suppose, but for once it’s the kind of something instead of nothing I can actually support.

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