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Peter Bart: Can ‘Dunkirk’s Christopher Nolan Sell Brit-Centric WWII Tale To U.S. Filmgoers?

Deadline logo Deadline 7/19/2017 Peter Bart
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Poised and primped as always in his crisp blazer, Christopher Nolan takes center stage Friday as a forceful advocate for his ambitious film Dunkirk. In his pitch to filmgoers and to the media, Nolan urges viewers to see Dunkirk as a Hitchcockian suspense movie, not as a conventional war film. Indeed Nolan’s repeated references to Hitchcock reflect his reverence for his mentor’s showmanship in promoting his films, as well as for his directing gifts.

Reserved and formal by nature, Nolan and his studio, Warner Bros, face a daunting challenge in selling Dunkirk as a major summer tentpole, battling sequels and superheroes for attention. For, despite the “suspense sell,” Dunkirk is still a period piece without star casting about a military debacle.

Warner Bros has been holding off mainstream reviewers while nurturing the social media, all to good effect. The buzz is positive and early trade reviews are strong, but none address whether this very English picture will capture a substantial U.S. audience. Still, Nolan’s considerable legion of fans, built through critical successes like Memento, Interstellar and the Dark Knight trilogy, seems eager to discover his latest departure in style and theme. Nolan’s films have tended to be wordy; Dunkirk’s shooting script came in at 76 pages. The finished film, while tight, has frequent cuts between past and present which, Nolan insists, are designed to heighten suspense, not to confuse his audience.

“The language of suspense is pedantic and at times you have to be a little boring,” Nolan told an interviewer from the Washington Post. As an interview subject, Nolan knows he has been accused of similar traits. “Nolan does not exhibit a shred of trying to win over and charm,” wrote Cara Buckley in the New York Times, “nor is there a trace of the British tendency to self-deprecate.”

In prepping Dunkirk, Nolan told the Los Angeles Times that he screened Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, then concluded, “OK, we don’t want to do anything like that.” Thus there are no blood and guts in his war movie and no soldiers kissing sweethearts goodbye. Instead, Nolan re-ran Hitchcock and opted for other devices to touch his filmgoers. Kenneth Branagh, who plays a naval commander, explains: “For those who consider Chris a cerebral filmmaker, what he did in Dunkirk shows he’s moving away from the head to the heart.”

I have talked with Nolan over the years and have sensed that the challenge of interacting with his public – the art of self-promotion – has proven daunting for him, as it has to other filmmakers before him. Paradoxically, some of the most curmudgeonly directors, like Robert Altman, have been masters at manipulating the media. Altman would “secretly” show an advance cut to a key critic, soliciting “advice” on the final edit (he never took suggestions but got great reviews). Terrence Malick, a friendly and articulate man, declines to take any role in promoting his films. Neither does Woody Allen who, even at premieres, sits in a corner and sulks.

To no one’s surprise, those directors who also happen to be movie stars have been the most successful in hustling media attention for their auteur efforts – Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, for example. The youthful rebels of the ’70s – Spielberg and Coppola – developed a natural affinity for interaction with the media. On the other hand, Dennis Hopper was so out of control after the success of Easy Rider that he once approached the veteran George Cukor at a festival event, shouting, “We’re taking over your world…We’re going to bury you.” The gentlemanly Cukor was astonished, as were reporters who witnessed it.

The two directors who displayed greatest mastery in manipulating the press were Hitchcock and Billy Wilder. Wilder loved talking about his films, but he was also generous in spinning tales about the past stars he worked with. Hitchcock, too, liked to tell stories for reporters and was surprisingly candid in discussing disagreements with his studio bosses. On Psycho, in particular, the studio failed to understand either the script or the marketing challenges (he ended up virtually self-financing the film.) To Hitchcock, favored members of the press were like co-conspirators in the battle to push quality movies through a stubborn system.

Chris Nolan surely would have liked Hitchcock to see his latest film, and to consult on marketing and on his relationship to the ever-needy media. For Hitchcock (with whom I shared weekly lunches) regarded himself as a showman, as did Wilder, while Nolan remains the lonely auteur, eloquent but vaguely unapproachable.

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