Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan's first act -- at 20 minutes -- depicts some of the most realistic and harrowing war footage in all of movie making. Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk takes that feat and turns it into two hours of equally harrowing, white-knuckle horror.
I assume the story of Saving Private Ryan is a fiction, and it strains credulity to the point of silliness. The story of Dunkirk is historical, and it is even more absurd. Both strive to depict the bleak, random, entropic lunacy of fighting wars.
And yet, while I enjoy re-watching Saving Private Ryan, I have no interest in seeing Dunkirk again. The reason? The sensibility of the two filmmakers. Spielberg is a filmmaker who is mostly interested in character and formula and, once we are on the beach at D Day, he turns Saving Private Ryan into a fairly formulaic buddy movie led by the consistently likable Tom Hanks. And I don't say this as a criticism. Watching this motley group of GIs snipe and kvetch and ultimately bond over their mission is satisfying on a human level. The theme is "War is Hell but Our Guys Ennoble It." Nolan, however, eschews character and eschews formula. The closest we get is Mark Rylance's understated boatsman. But it's not close enough. We watch a nameless young recruit narrowly escape certain death a half dozen times, but never get to know him. We watch an RAF pilot perform in some of the most thrilling aerial footage I've ever seen on film, but never get to see his face. And, ultimately, the great escape from the Dunkirk beach, as small boats and pleasure craft rescue hundreds of thousands of British soldiers, underwhelms, despite an annoyingly loud and insistently percussive score by Hans Zimmer.
At the end of it all, I was exhausted and drained, but not moved or inspired. And, while Nolan's achievement as a filmmaker is technically spectacular and jaw-dropping in its nihilistic artistry, I left feeling more stressed than entertained.