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War is hell, or it could just be human

Combat is a showbiz staple, with 'Dunkirk' and 'Wonder Woman' among 2017’s notables

Gal Gadot, right, stars in "Wonder Woman." Also pictured: Chris Pine.

CLAY ENOS, WARNER BROS. PICTURES/AP

By JUSTIN CHANG | Los Angeles Times | Published: September 8, 2017

"I used to want to save the world, to end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both.”

The words are spoken by Wonder Woman in the hit summer blockbuster that bears her name, and they signal an unusual ethical seriousness that is one of the movie’s most refreshing attributes. In a genre that often defaults to glib humor or self-serious nihilism, Diana Prince - shrewdly drawn by the director Patty Jenkins and wittily inhabited by Gal Gadot - is a refreshingly idealistic comic-book superhero. She doesn’t just want to end the war to end all wars; she wants to destroy the very concept of war itself and disarm human beings of their desire to fight, maim and kill.

The difficult lesson that Diana learns is thus one of profound disillusionment: Humanity is not so easily rid of its warlike impulses, and the will to do violent harm in the name of a higher cause, far from being an aberration, may in fact be a fundamental aspect of our temperament.

We are continually reminded of this by history both distant and recent. We are reminded by TV series as different as “Game of Thrones” and “Twin Peaks: The Return.”

But we are reminded perhaps most of all by Hollywood, which, even in a summer that has lived up to its annual promise of disposable fluff has also proven surprisingly willing to send its characters to war.

This is not unprecedented. War films may be thought of chiefly as the domain of the fall awards season, but that rule was broken at least as early as 1998, by a July release called “Saving Private Ryan.”

The just-concluded summer of 2017 may not have produced a critical and commercial colossus of “Ryan’s” scale - or maybe it has, given the rapturous reception for “Dunkirk” - but it has provided its own myriad answers to the old question of war: What is it good for?

Plenty, to judge by the fictional interspecies clash at the heart of “War for the Planet of the Apes,” a supremely accomplished piece of classical studio filmmaking that earns its evocation of such pantheon war films as “The Great Escape” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

“Wonder Woman,” for its part, derives some dramatic heft from its wartime backdrop, but by cleverly straddling the line between history and fantasy, it treats war primarily as a setting rather than as a subject.

In this regard it stands in striking contrast to the summer’s more experimental, exploratory war films, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” which might seem to have little in common apart from a city-based title starting with the fourth letter of the alphabet.

One film tackles a fateful early chapter of World War II, while the other revisits a horrifying episode from the civil unrest that gripped Detroit in 1967. One is a runaway critical and commercial hit, the other a polarizing box-office flop.

Yet despite their differences, both films have radically updated the war movie for our uniquely troubled present moment and have done so with a formal and narrative audacity that can seem rare and exciting in any season.

In “Dunkirk,” Nolan turns a historic problem-solving exercise - the 1940 evacuation of Allied troops from the French port city of Dunkirk - into a cinematic one, tracking a mass rescue effort along three distinct yet gradually convergent lines of action. The result is less a straightforward portrait of combat than a bravura symphony of wartime chaos, in which soldiers separated by time and space are connected by the very language of the medium as well as by their common cause.

A week’s worth of harrowing conflict is splintered into 106 minutes’ worth of taut, frenzied spectacle, during which we become increasingly aware of how utterly at the mercy of their physical surroundings these soldiers are and how dramatically their circumstances can change in an instant.

The elemental peril of these men’s circumstances make “Dunkirk” perhaps one of the movies’ purest examples of how character is revealed through action. We may not always remember the names of these predominantly British soldiers, but we remember them for their displays of heroism and cowardice, their willingness to sacrifice either their own lives or those of their comrades when confronted with near-certain death.

Unlike most World War II films, “Dunkirk” avoids showing any overt bloodshed or even a glimpse of the enemy, apart from the occasional distant shot of a Nazi plane - a conscious choice that lends this blockbuster art film a curious element of abstraction.

No such distance is present in “Detroit,” an unflinching realist docudrama that spends most of its time reconstructing the notorious Algiers Motel incident of July 25-26, 1967, thrusting us into a tumultuous and ultimately fatal clash between white-supremacist cops and terrified civilians, most of them black men.

Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, establish their context at the outset, using animation and archival footage to outline the inflamed racial tensions that made the heavily segregated Motor City a war zone waiting to happen. But rather than continuing to examine that war zone in a broad-canvas manner, the filmmakers shift their focus to the Algiers, in an extended hour-plus sequence that becomes a nightmarish vision of pleading black faces and leering white ones, in which dread gathers as slowly but surely as blood.

The unedifying nature of this story goes a long way toward explaining why “Detroit,” despite its largely admiring reviews (my own included), has also drawn its share of condemnation, including the accusation that it amounts to a white filmmaker’s insensitive visualization of black pain.

It’s fair to question the perspective being represented in “Detroit” and also to ask what purpose is served by a reconstruction this grueling. My own answer would be that while Bigelow certainly has a talent for dramatizing brutality (the film would scarcely have generated this much anger otherwise), her approach strikes me as compassionate rather than callous and principled in its determination to confront the ugliness of white supremacy head-on.

Bigelow and Boal’s specific choice of narrative may not be the ideal one for a title as all-encompassing as “Detroit,” but it strikes me as a defensible one nonetheless. Still, that their film has been attacked as a representational failure is a telling reminder that we often look to war movies - even those that offer only a partial view of events, from “Schindler’s List” to “Black Hawk Down” to Bigelow’s own “The Hurt Locker” - for a definitive, comprehensive rendering of history.

Films like “Detroit” are expected to say it all, to not only to recount history but also to do it in a way that redresses history’s mistakes.

Those strictures don’t leave an imaginative filmmaker a lot of room to play with form or attempt an unconventional narrative strategy. That one film has been a success while the other has struggled to find an audience is in some ways a function of their respective genres. “Dunkirk” is a thriller that leaves you shaken but edified; “Detroit” is a horror movie that leaves you benumbed and depressed.

The spectacle of mass death in “Dunkirk” has the cruel but impersonal efficiency of mechanized warfare, which audiences have long been conditioned to accept. The terrible intimacy and racist pathology of the violence in “Detroit” is infinitely more difficult to take.

And that difficulty, finally, may have less to do with a difference in filmmaking sensibility than with the inequity of history itself. It’s worth noting the curious coincidence that gave us these two particular war movies in a summer that also witnessed a terrifying resurgence in white supremacy and neo-Nazism in the U.S.

But while “Dunkirk” is certainly a movie about the threat of fascism, it engages that threat obliquely rather than directly and with the absolute assurance of a victorious outcome. The film may end in an uneasy stalemate, but we exit the theater comfortable in the knowledge that the bad guys will be decisively defeated.

“Detroit” offers us no such consolation. It’s a raw wound of a movie, a seething broadside against issues of police brutality and systemic injustice that collapses the distance between the civil rights movement and the era of Black Lives Matter. It angers and disturbs, in no small part, because the war it captures rages on.

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©2017 Los Angeles Times

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Fionn Whitehead in "Dunkirk."
MELINDA SUE GORDON/WARNER BROS.

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