Dunkirk and Darkest Hour: How a Happy Accident Became the Best Thing to Happen to Hollywood in 2017

Crippled by a perfect storm of new channels for film distribution, secular headwinds dissuading people away from the movie theater experience, a television renaissance, and conservative creative Hollywood decision-making where comic book movies and comic book movie sequels are about as exciting as it gets: it’s fair to generalize that Hollywood has been playing it overly safe as of late. Adventurous high-risk projects that employ unestablished plot formulas or untested screenwriters and/or directors are a rarity.

Yet a strange coincidence in 2017 may have offered up just the evidence we need to see that taking chances can pay off – even if it was a complete accident. Two movies about the exact same World War II battle told from completely different vantage points may have reinvigorated the stale as a crouton state of Hollywood film-making.

Earlier this year, Christopher Nolan released a time-skipping, all-too-real front-lines look at the Battle of Dunkirk, a critical early World War II battle, whereby the British forces backed themselves into a proverbial corner* whereby had the Germans proceeded as aggressors, the Axis forces could have won the war back in 1940. Nolan’s film, Dunkirk, focuses almost entirely on the action on the French beaches of Dunkirk via three vantage points: land, air, and sea with varying speeds and freneticism depending on the mode of transport.

The film grossed $545 million dollars, which in and of itself is a big win for movie fans desperately hoping for more risks or at the very least some headier thematic content – yes, a war movie is considered daring in today’s movie industry – but the real optimism is in the seemingly coincidental accident that later in the year, as the very same battle is told from the Halls of the British Parliament from the perspective of the British politicians making the decisions behind the scenes, via Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour.

Darkest Hour feels like a well-placed collaborative sister film that rolled out in theaters just as Dunkirk hit Cable On-Demand and Streaming sites. It’s almost like watching a different character’s interpretation of the very same events not unlike an episode of The Affair on Showtime. You’re watching the exact same time-period unfold with all the fear and intensity, but from entirely different character viewpoints.

While Dunkirk has the action of the war and Christopher Nolan’s trademark mind-bending of time and space which makes for a more accessible war film – in a brief exchange with the lead Film Editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle, he said he thought Dunkirk was the more likely of the two to take home the Oscar for Best Picture – yet Darkest Hour was his favorite. Darkest Hour is gripping in its own right despite nary a sign of a gunshot. It’s entirely focused on Winston Churchill’s blind-drunk big-hearted approach to navigating a seemingly lose-lose scenario, but by following his nationalistic gut instincts to fight for their country., the extraction of over 300,000 British soldiers from Dunkirk succeeds.

In researching the timing of the two films, there exists to my knowledge no evidence that suggests that the movies were rolled out as an intentional collaboration, but it’s this type of creative riffing that could bring a new level of excitement back to film. This was the first time I felt a complete surprise and instantly wanted more of the story upon leaving the the theater in longer than I can remember.

Mick LaSalle, the aforementioned Film Editor for the SF Chronicle offered this on the potential of an intentional collaboration, “I don’t think they were coordinated, though they may have been intentionally released in a way as to avoid each other.”

In other words, the two films were hardly an intentional cross-promotion, but rather they stayed out of each other’s way at best. Ironically, I view this as a potentially new mechanism for the safety-first Hollywood enterprise  – one that clutches on to its formulas like Shake Weights – to embark on more adventurous material in within a potentially lower risk financial framework. For instance, following the success of Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, we could theoretically now have the stage set for additional deep dives into why the US held out so long in entering the war; how did Britain rally back after Dunkirk; or dare I say, a do-over of a Pearl Harbor picture. The new formula becomes the all-in onslaught on a topic of deep cultural relevance or historic significance but told through the eye various auteurs and in a variety of styles – some accessible, some challenging – from year to year.

NPR wrote an article highlighting the strange coincidence of the two films, albeit in the context of the accident being potentially threatening to the two films. I don’t see it this way at all. They are both better because the other one exists. In fact, Dunkirk might win the Oscar for Best Picture while Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill is a lock for best actor. This coincidence feels like a truly unique experience to be savored. Go see these movies back to back, or in consecutive days. You’ll have fun at the movie theater again.

Oldman’s Speech

Churchill’s Speech

*I figure if I’m going to lazily use the saying “backed into a proverbial corner,” I should at least pick a proverb to go with it. So, I picked two: “ Failing to plan is planning to fail” and “Eat breakfast as a king, lunch as a merchant and supper as a beggar.”

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