Oscars: Can 'Dunkirk' Go Where No Christopher Nolan Movie Has Gone Before?

Is Christopher Nolan's World War II-set Dunkirk, which opens nationwide on Friday, "the greatest war film ever," as one high-profile film critic suggested in his review? No, that's getting a bit carried away — but it is one of the most distinguished films of 2017, virtually everyone who has seen it agrees, as is reflected in its 98 percent favorable rating on RottenTomatoes.com. And that, of course, raises another question: To what extent will the Warner Bros. release be an Oscar season player several months from now?

Consciously or not, Dunkirk blends elements of many of the war films of yesteryear that have been most embraced by the Academy: the first and third best picture winners, respectively, 1927's Wings, with its gorgeous shots of harrowing aerial combat, and 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front, a statement on the bleakness and futility of war; three best picture nominees from 1942, In Which We Serve and Mrs. Miniver (the winner), with their portraits of Brits employing stiff upper lips and rising to the occasion during WWII, and Wake Island, the first WWII combat film, which depicted Allied troops facing an onslaught with little hope for relief; and countless best picture nominees about groups of men from different walks of life banding together in various WWII battles, from 1949's Battleground (the Battle of the Bulge) through 1998's Saving Private Ryan (the invasion of Normandy).

Does this mean that the Academy will also warmly embrace Dunkirk, which recounts the evacuation of Dunkirk? At this early date, without having seen all of what's to be released later this year, and with the knowledge that one-fifth of the Academy's entire membership joined within the last year, it's hard to say. But it seems to me that there are four ways things could play out...

(1) The Academy ignores the film entirely, as it did Nolan's feature directorial debut Following (1998), Insomnia (2002) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). That's not going to happen with Dunkirk, which is the most Academy-friendly pic that he's made, far more up their alley than sci-fi, horror or comic book adaptations.

(2) The Academy recognizes the film's craft and technical components, and maybe its screenplay, but nothing beyond that, as it did with Memento (2000), which was nominated for its original screenplay and film editing; The Prestige (2006), which garnered art direction and cinematography noms; Batman Begins (2006), which got a cinematography mention; and 2014's Interstellar, which wound up with a visual effects win and noms for original score, production design, sound editing and sound mixing. (I'd also throw 2008's The Dark Knight into this grouping, as it's doubtful it would have bagged a best supporting actor win, or even a nom — to go with its sound editing win and noms for art direction, cinematography, film editing, makeup, sound mixing and visual effects — had Heath Ledger not died earlier that year.) Many interpreted this sort of limited recognition of Nolan's films as the Academy's way of saying that it respected his filmmaking abilities but did not feel emotionally invested in his movies.

(3) The Academy recognizes the film's craft and technical attributes and the film itself, but not Nolan's direction, as it did with the movie of his that the Academy clearly liked the most, 2010's Inception, which won for its cinematography, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects, and also got best picture, original screenplay, original score and art direction noms.

(4) The Academy falls head over heels in love with the film and recognizes it in all, or at least most, of the aforementioned areas, as well as for Nolan's direction.

Personally, I think the likeliest outcome is three, maybe four.

It seems all but certain to me that Dunkirk will make a major showing in the below-the-line categories in which Nolan films historically have done well: cinematography (the aerial scenes are incredible), film editing (with intercutting not only between storylines but between time periods), production design (formerly known as art direction, done here on a massive scale), sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects. I wouldn't rule out costume design, supporting actor (past winner Mark Rylance's performance is the only one I can see standing out enough to snag a nom) or original screenplay, either. And in an age in which the Academy can nominate anywhere from five to 10 films for best picture, as opposed to just five — a rule change that was borne out of outrage over the best picture snub of The Dark Knight — it's hard to imagine the Academy not making room for this one in its top category.

I feel less confident about a directing nomination, though, not because Nolan doesn't deserve one — for my money, he's one of the masters of his generation and it's absurd that he never has been nominated — but because he has a few things working against him.

For one, his film's July release date means it will have somewhat receded into voters' memories by the time they are deluged with Oscar-caliber movies shortly before nominations voting begins in December. (Consider what happened to Saving Private Ryan, which was released July 24, spent the rest of the year regarded as the frontrunner but ultimately lost to December release Shakespeare in Love.) For another, Nolan doesn't really like to work the circuit during the awards season. (This is a shame because I've found him to be a smart, unassuming and likable guy, but it's extremely rare to garner personal recognition without indulging in a little bit of gladhanding.) And, finally, there are some who are already arguing that Dunkirk's shortcomings are the same as those of his other films — that it all feels a bit too cold and sanitary and would have elicited greater emotional investment if it showed more of the chatter among comrades, spilled blood and gore and faces of the enemy.

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