Debate: Is ‘Dunkirk’ director Christopher Nolan the best or the worst filmmaker of our time?

Debate: Is ‘Dunkirk’ director Christopher Nolan the best or the worst filmmaker of our time?
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One hot-button issue. Two opposing views. Three rounds of fiery debate. This is Actually.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which comes out on Friday, is his 10th feature as a director: a career that’s netted him 26 Oscar nominations and seven statuettes. His movies are often box office successes — he shares the distinction with James Cameron of having two movies gross more than $1 billion worldwide, for instance — in addition to being critically acclaimed.

But is he actually any good? After all, he went from making small art house films (Following and Memento) to working with some of the most bankable actors in Hollywood and on one of the premier comic book franchises (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises), either of which would normally guarantee success, and some of his other pictures (Insomnia, The Prestige) were not considered that memorable.

His films are commercial successes, but the question up for debate is whether they are creatively interesting and worthy of all the hype.

Mic asked two staff members — Kyle McGovern, the editor of Hype, and Miles Surrey, a staff writer for Hype — to debate the relative merits of Nolan and his films. They each get three rounds of response, each round can be no longer than 200 words and all responses have to be to the moderator in no more than 30 minutes. 

At the end of the grudge match, you’ll get to vote on the winner. No matter who wins, though, everyone gets to keep their jobs. 

Kyle won the coin toss, so he led off the debate. At the end, please vote in our poll to determine who made the better arguments.

Round 1 — Opening arguments

Kyle McGovern: Let’s be clear about a few things: Christopher Nolan is a very successful filmmaker. His movies are extremely popular and there’s no doubt that when he releases a new project, it’s a capital-e Event, inspiring lists and themed weeks on the internet. He holds a rare title in modern Hollywood — that of a blockbuster auteur. He has a consistent aesthetic and an artistic vision that translates across his different films. Those are all points in the plus-column.

The problem, though — and the reason that I think Nolan is vastly overrated — is that his vision is too cold, too calculating. There’s plenty to savor throughout his filmography (Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight is the obvious go-to, but there’s also the city folding in on itself in Inception, the two-hour pissing contest that is The Prestige), but I don’t think he’s yet made a truly great film.

Now, Dunkirk’s being praised as a masterpiece, and I hope that’s true. In fact, I think it has a decent shot at being his first masterpiece because it’s based on a true story — so there’s no chance for a hackneyed third-act twist or overwrought, interdimensional time travel or for a cliffhanger that ends up overshadowing everything that came on-screen before it. Dunkirk can just be a straight-ahead movie, a thrilling, prestige war picture. It’s a nice change for a director who can’t help but overthink his way through a movie.

Miles Surrey: Few directors in Hollywood have the clout to make a blockbuster about whatever the hell they want — mind heists, intergalactic space epics, Tom Hardy with a sleep apnea machine breaking Batman’s back — which puts Christopher Nolan in a very select group. You see a trailer for a film with Nolan’s name on it, and yeah, people are going to the theater. But because Nolan’s been such a successful filmmaker, it’s put a monstrous target on his back. The contrarian moviegoer wants to declare the widely beloved, critically acclaimed filmmaker as overrated, or fundamentally uninteresting.

It’s unmerited, and frankly insulting, to criticize this director, who is perhaps the closest we’ve gotten to a Spielberg heir in the past two decades. Has Nolan made underwhelming films? Sure: The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t hold up to repeated viewings, and Insomnia will, ironically, put you to sleep. But consider his versatile body of work: They’re still being dissected today (i.e., the Inception ending), and you’ll find few directors as original, innovative — and yes, popular — as Nolan. He’s not the best director we’ve got, but he’s a damn good one.

Round 2 — Rebuttal

Kyle McGovern: Wow, wow, wow: I resent being dubbed a “contrarian,” as if I’m hating on the guy just for the sake of it. (Avert your eyes from the headline of this post!) It’s true that Nolan can get pretty much anything he wants off the ground because of his track record, which is great and its own achievement, but you called his body of work “versatile.” Really? He’s got a very particular comfort zone: handsomely shot visuals; a plot that’s usually three steps more complex than it needs to be; and a male protagonist who’s struggling with personal trauma after the woman he loves either commits suicide or is brutally murdered.

Nolan’s a great technical filmmaker, but that analytical mind of his doesn’t help when he’s trying to tell a compelling story. Most of his films are bloodless — they’re obsessed with big ideas but are incapable of relaying those ideas in an artful way. That’s how you end up with the Joker just straight-up explaining his entire worldview to Batman in that interrogation scene; that’s how you end up with a movie like Inception, which is so densely plotted that it demands you never look away from the screen or use the restroom. Maybe that’s more of a problem with Nolan’s brother and frequent screenwriting collaborator, Jonathan Nolan. He’s the mastermind behind HBO’s Westworld, so he’s clearly preoccupied with “solving” stories, rather than telling them.

Miles Surrey: I would also caution readers not to read the headline and assume I think he’s the best filmmaker of our time — he’s up there, but he’s not the greatest! As for Nolan’s versatility, I won’t deny that his work sometimes plays with familiar themes, but I think boiling it down to unnecessary complexity (also, untrue) and the mold of his male protagonists is a tad presumptuous.

Broadly, Nolan is fascinated by the human condition, and likes to juxtapose characters with vastly different philosophical, political and moral views — Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight, the dueling magicians of The Prestige — and let the chaos unfurl. (But, really, without the broad strokes, a superhero epic and a period piece on magicians have little in common.)

With respect to the criticisms that Nolan’s work can be cold, or as you said, bloodless, I point to his most divisive film, Interstellar. I’m an Interstellar stan (Interstanner?) in part because it’s such an earnest and emotional work. Step away from the sumptuous, Oscar-winning special effects — which, I should add, are rooted in science! — and you have a simple, but powerful story about family, responsibility and love. When Nolan asked Hans Zimmer to compose the Oscar-nominated score for the movie, he didn’t at first tell him that it was a sci-fi epic at all: He said it was about a father who had to leave his child for an important job.

Nolan’s made an impressive jump from indie films to blockbusters, and he rarely repeats himself.

Round 3 — Closing thoughts

Kyle McGovern: I will grant that Interstellar is the Nolan film with the most emotion — but, again, it’s just undone by its plotting and some of the characters’ motives. (Really, Anne Hathaway traveled all that way and through all those wormholes or whatever to chase after Matt Damon?) Interstellar’s a nearly three-hour movie that’s best summed up by a trailer that’s less than two minutes. That moment in the teaser, a minute and 25 seconds in, when McConaughey’s driving away from his family, looking beaten down and crying, as the score swells? Still gives me chills. But I have little to no desire to ever rewatch that movie again because I remember it just devolving into utter nonsense.

Nolan takes big swings, and I appreciate that. And you’re right, he’s probably the closest director to Spielberg that we’ve got right now, but it’s also slim pickings in that arena. Spielberg’s best films come with a sense of wonder — Nolan’s films focus on logic, and they don’t even abide by it all the time. If we’re going to talk about this guy in terms of the greats — Spielberg, Kubrick — then I want to see a truly great film from him, something on par with Saving Private Ryan or Eyes Wide Shut (yeah, I said it). Dunkirk might be the one, but what I’ve seen so far hasn’t quite hit those heights.

Miles Surrey: Before I wrap up I just want to point out that Anne Hathaway in Interstellar isn’t after Matt Damon’s character (who is very shitty), but another astronaut from a potentially habitable planet that we don’t see on-screen! I felt compelled to fact check something about the film that reaches the same ambitious heights as 2001: A Space Odyssey (I hope this bold declaration doesn’t endanger my work status at Mic, for Kyle is my editor).

I do appreciate that you’re not Nolan-bashing and, while we may not agree on where he stands as a filmmaker, I’d like to peel back and look at the state of cinema. Hollywood has essentially become a factory for sequels, reboots and remakes — the big blockbusters dominate the landscape, supplemented by the occasional indie film with Oscar aspirations. You rarely find something in the middle.

Nolan’s films aren’t going to save the industry, but I’d much rather watch an original blockbuster over the third attempt at a Spider-Man franchise. Give me Dunkirk, Interstellar or Inception over the Marvel Cinematic Universe or whatever Universal’s trying to do with monster movies any day. He might not strike gold every time, but Nolan’s consistently great and, most importantly, original.

This concludes the latest installment of Actually. Please take a moment to vote for the debater who you think made the more compelling argument.