Warner Bros. Pictures released a teaser trailer for its upcoming war drama “Dunkirk” (watch it above). The film tells the story of the famous evacuation during World War II, when Allied soldiers were rescued from the shores of Dunkirk, France, in 1940. The film is directed by Christopher Nolan and opens July 21, 2017. On paper you couldn’t ask for a more awards-friendly project: a large-scale, historical war epic from a respected filmmaker with a big Oscar IOU ready to be cashed in. That sounds a lot like the story of Steven Spielberg before the academy finally embraced him in the 1990s.
Spielberg made a career directing largely sci-fi, fantasy and adventure films that earned him five Oscar nominations between 1977 and 1985, including Best Director for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) and “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” (1982). Then he was infamously snubbed for Best Director for “The Color Purple” (1985), though that film still earned him a nom for Best Picture as a producer. But Spielberg didn’t win an Oscar until he went to war with the classic Holocaust epic “Schindler’s List” (1993), for which he won both Best Picture and Best Director. He won Best Director again just five years later for another World War II drama, “Saving Private Ryan” (1998).
Nolan’s career has been on a similar trajectory. He has achieved both critical acclaim and box office success over the past 15 years with films including his breakthrough “Memento” (2000), “The Dark Knight” (2008), “Inception” (2010) and “Interstellar” (2014). To date he has been nominated for three Oscars — Best Original Screenplay for “Memento” and “Inception,” Best Picture for “Incepption” — but so far the academy has denied him even a nomination for Best Director, and the snub of “The Dark Knight” from Best Picture was so controversial that it is widely seen as one of the precipitating factors leading the academy to expand Best Picture to 10 nominees starting in 2009; now there may be anywhere between six and 10 nominees.
But Oscar voters have always been resistant to sci-fi and fantasy films, even bona fide classics like Spielberg’s “Close Encounters,” “E.T.” and “Raiders.” They earn nominations on rare occasions, but it’s far rarer that they win: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003) was the only fantasy film to prevail as Best Picture, and there have been no sci-fi winners at all. “Dunkirk,” however, is right in the academy’s comfort zone, and it features an Oscar-friendly cast including Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance. If Nolan achieves similar critical and box office success with this war film as he’s had with sci-fi, the academy might not be able to resist — finally.