Detroit dramatizes 1960s riots, while Dunkirk fails to connect
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s most recent films, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, were both set during recent American-led military incursions (Afghanistan and Iraq). Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal effectively dramatized those conflicts by putting human faces and stories behind the familiar details from daily news reports.
She has done the same again with her newest film, Detroit, but the historical events that inspire this story can be found much closer to home: the racial conflicts that erupted into violence in many American cities in the late 1960s. Again, Bigelow masterfully humanizes a sad chapter in American history by giving us flesh-and-blood characters with whom to empathize.
Almost exactly 50 years ago, in July 1967, as tensions over racial injustice reached a boiling point in Michigan’s largest and largely racially-segregated city, a police raid on an illegal after-hours club resulted in several days of unrest known as The 12th Street Riot. Part of that riot was a controversial encounter between a group of mostly African-American young people and a rogue and demonstrably racist detail of city police and National Guardsmen at the Algiers Motel. When it was over, three black men were dead and the policemen involved were charged with murder, assault, and conspiracy. All those charged were eventually acquitted.
Bigelow brings that awful night to life in her gritty, powerful film. Like her earlier films, she captures the chaos of the rioting neighborhood. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editor John Goldenberg heighten the agitation with jiggly hand-held camera work tightly focused on the terrified youth and their interaction with the on-edge police involved. The fear, and the stakes, are palpable.
The last act of Detroit, in which the incident is taken through a stultifying investigatory and legal process, feels flaccid and unfocused after the unrelenting tension of the film’s beginning.
The appealing cast is largely unknown but includes John Boyega (Star Wars The Force Awakens), Anthony Mackie (Captain America: Civil War), Samira Wiley (Orange Is the New Black), and Will Poulter (The Maze Runner).
On reflection, I’m not sure the film would be as emotionally effective in a second viewing. Much of its power derives from the immediacy and unfortunate familiarity of the story. Nevertheless, Bigelow has again demonstrated an uncanny gift for breathing life into a little-known American tragedy.
Writer-director Christopher Nolan has made some of the most inventive and engaging films of the last dozen years, including the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Interstellar, and a personal favorite, a wicked period piece called The Prestige. So it’s understandable that a critic’s curiosity would be piqued when Nolan decides his next feature would be a war picture that depicts the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation during World War II.
Sadly, Nolan’s formidable gifts as a cinematic storyteller seem ill-suited to this particular subject. Dunkirk is a crushing disappointment of a film that completely fails to find the human drama in history that Bigelow did in Detroit. The plight of the characters, an indistinguishable group of young British and French soldiers, is sympathetic to the audience but they serve merely as human props in a movie more fixated on bombs exploding and ships sinking.
Dunkirk is further marred by dialogue that is fuzzed out to the point of being unintelligible and a Hans Zimmer musical score that is tense mostly because it is so interminably grating.
The only narrative innovation is in Nolan’s decision to tell the story in three different time sequences: one on land taking a week, the second a day at sea, and the last an hour in the air. This quirky concept works better than it sounds, and the disparate times do eventually converge at the climax of the film. But I would have been more impressed if I had been more engaged in the story throughout.