“Dunkirk” has long been considered the Oscar frontrunner for Best Picture. It ticks a lot of the boxes you need to signal a top awards contender: a heroic true story set during World War II, a respected director with a big Oscar IOU after past snubs (Christopher Nolan), and overwhelming support from critics. But its fortunes in the top Oscar category have become uncertain, and one of the sticking points has been its struggle to garner support for its screenplay. No film since “Titanic” (1997) has won Best Picture without a writing nomination, but I think it deserves more consideration for its script than it’s getting credit for.
There are usually two kinds of screenplays that award-voters admire. The first kind is driven by lots of dialogue and strong character development; this year films like “Lady Bird,” “The Big Sick,” and “Call Me by Your Name” fit that bill. Then there are idea-driven movies which attract attention for scripts with innovative concepts, twists, or story structures; this year “The Shape of Water” and “Get Out” are like that, and previous Nolan movies like “Memento” and “Inception” have earned writing nominations at the Oscars for that very reason.
I think “Dunkirk” is another such idea movie, but I don’t think it’s thought of that way since it looks on the surface like such a straight-ahead retelling of the events of the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of France during World War II. But it’s just as intricately written as “Inception” was. Though the film isn’t driven by its dialogue, its three interconnected segments — one set on land, one set on the sea, and one set in the air — take place over three different time periods. So while they’re edited together to feel like the events are happening concurrently, one storyline is set over the course of a week, one over the course of a day, and one over the course of an hour.
The intersections of those timelines are what give the film much of its impact, as we see one event play out from a different point of view or in a different context that reveals more details — some heroic, some harrowing — about the experiences of the soldiers and civilians involved. Perhaps because it feels simpler than it really is the film has gotten lost in the shuffle, and it didn’t make the cut in writing categories at the Critics’ Choice Awards or Golden Globes despite being nominated for Best Picture at both of those events.
The bigger challenge for Nolan’s screenplay may just be a matter of bad luck. In a year where the top Oscar contenders are more evenly divided between original films and adaptations, the “Dunkirk” script might have made the cut just by virtue of its strength as a Best Picture contender. But this year the vast majority of top Oscar movies come from original scripts, including the aforementioned “Lady Bird,” “Get Out,” “The Shape of Water,” and “The Big Sick,” as well as “The Post,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Darkest Hour,” “Phantom Thread,” and “The Florida Project” in addition to “Dunkirk,” so it has had more difficulty standing out from the crowd with its heavily visual storytelling and limited dialogue.
But there is precedent for a more taciturn movie to be embraced by the academy. In 2003 “The Pianist” was an upset winner for Ronald Harwood‘s adapted screenplay despite long stretches without spoken dialogue; that was even more surprising considering that it was up against perhaps the talkiest movie of that year, “The Hours,” which should have been catnip to voters since it was also about a famous writer (Virginia Woolf). And in 2011 “The Artist” earned a nomination for its original script despite being entirely a silent film. Compared to that the characters in “Dunkirk” are downright chatterboxes.
Do you agree that “Dunkirk” deserves more consideration for its writing? And can it rebound at the awards to come, including the BAFTA, Writers Guild, and of course Academy Awards?
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