Are movies too long, or is life too short? Either way, Christopher Nolan is here to save us. Dunkirk, the blockbuster auteur’s new World War II movie (out next Friday), clocks in at one hour and 46 minutes, making it the shortest film in Nolan’s epic-laden career since his 69-minute debut feature, Following (1998).
Nolan’s last release, 2014’s Interstellar, was his longest, coming in at a bold 169 minutes. Had it been released this summer, competing with the likes of Transformers: The Last Knight (149 minutes) and War for the Planet of the Apes (140), it wouldn’t have seemed like an outlier — minus the fact that it’s measurably better than most of this summer’s big movies and, thus, feels comparably short. Whether or not we wind up thinking Dunkirk is any good, meanwhile, is almost beside the point. No good movie is too long, no matter the runtime. But blockbuster brevity, in the abstract, is a rarity. Accordingly, it’s an automatic breath of fresh air.
It’s not especially original to gripe that movies these days — particularly summer tentpoles — have started to wear out their welcome, runtime-wise. This has been litigated over and over — and not only by critics — but nothing will change when overlong films do gangbusters at the box office. See also: this year’s no. 1 movie, Beauty and the Beast, which, at 129 minutes, is more than 30 minutes longer than the original, all of it dreary backstory, none of it interesting, well-made, or earned. Yet we eat it up: We’re happily epic-bloated, and that may be in part because studios and their directors have been steadily expanding our appetites. Each successive Captain America film, for example, is about 10 minutes longer than the last: from The First Avenger (124 minutes) in 2011, to The Winter Soldier (136) in 2014, to last year’s Civil War (147).
Ninety-minute films are not inherently better, except insofar as they tend to lack the obligatory "extended universes," for which I’m always grateful: "Extended universe" is as accurate a descriptor of the typical superhero movie’s runtime as any other. I’d take a Sully (96 minutes) or a Gravity (91) — well-made entertainment with humble runtimes — any day of the week. But I also wouldn’t shave a minute from David Fincher’s Zodiac (157 minutes) or Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (180), each of which is a tribute to its characters’ excesses and obsessions. These are movies about overdoing it made by directors who tend, like their characters, to overdo it; the runtime is part of the story, not a distraction from it. Also: These are good movies. If you like them, the runtime feels justified.
This is all subjective, in other words, but you’d absolutely be justified in yipping with joy at the news of a slimmed-down, "New year, new me," minimal-baggage Christopher Nolan feature, even if this isn’t exactly breaking news. Amazon sleuths had already noticed that the page count for the official screenplay was unusually low, and Nolan himself has since explained that the goal was to keep the dialogue minimal (hence the low page count) and the storytelling slim. As he recently told Fox 5 DC:
Interesting, interesting. First question: Who are you, and what did you do with Christopher Nolan? It usually takes the real Nolan 100-plus minutes to get to the suspense and tension in his movies, with the payoff usually coming somewhere around the point that the multiple threads of his labyrinthine plots start overlapping and the movie begins to tilt toward its third act. Hearing that he’s cut down on his time by a third is satisfying in a specific, "Wow, people can change" way. If I weren’t convinced this guy is Nolan’s bodysnatcher doppelgänger, I’d be inspired — and I’d be encouraging other directors to follow suit.
Long runtimes are as much a staple of auteurist Hollywood as they are of run-of-the-mill studio fare. Scorsese, Fincher, Alejandro Iñárritu, Judd Apatow, Michael Mann, Michael Bay, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg, and many of their (male, especially) peers share a love of bold storytelling and long-runtime immersion — and they get rewarded for it. At the 2013 Oscars, four of the nine Best Picture nominees clocked in at two and a half hours or more: Django Unchained (165 minutes), Les Misérables (158), Zero Dark Thirty (157), and Lincoln (150). Four of the remaining movies (Amour, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, and the winner, Argo) are two hours and change. Only one — the indie Beasts of the Southern Wild — approached anything close to a smooth 90 minutes, and that’s likely only because that’s as long as that humbly budgeted movie could afford to be.
We treat overlong Hollywood movies like a new blight, but of course they aren’t. There is a case to be made for film properties needing to be and feel bigger than their counterparts on TV. Every Avengers movie is essentially an episode of television; it makes sense that Marvel might use a bigger budget and a longer runtime to beguile us into thinking otherwise. I don’t totally buy that theory, however, because epic movies far predate Peak TV: They predate all TV. This isn’t a matter of mere competition between the two mediums. Hollywood gave us Gone With the Wind, The Ten Commandments, Giant, Lawrence of Arabia, et cetera, et cetera. Hollywood gave us roadshows: those epic-friendly limited releases, which were popular in major cities worldwide from the 1950s through to the early ’70s and included intermissions, that bolstered the runtimes of Cleopatra, Ben-Hur and the like. When Tarantino, promoting the 70-mm beauty of The Hateful Eight (his longest film, discounting the combined Kill Bill), reverted to a classic roadshow model — down to the revival of the intermission — he was knowingly calling back to Hollywood history.
There’s a little bit of nostalgia at work in interminable runtimes, is my point. Complaining about runtimes like they’re a new problem entails a healthy, but understandable, bit of historical amnesia. A movie like 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King — hugely budgeted and overlong, in part, thanks to having more endings than a cow has stomachs — is, more than anything else, a throwback to a grand tradition of epic Hollywood filmmaking. The first American blockbuster, D.W. Griffith’s hyper-racist The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, was 195 minutes long. Griffith’s follow-up and antiracist apologia for that movie, the aptly named Intolerance, was even longer. It hardly proved against trend; silent epics, essential mass entertainment here and abroad at the time, were absolutely a thing: here an Intolerance, there a Napoleon. At least, unlike Abel Glance’s Napoleon, Marvel movies haven’t dared pass the five-hour mark. On the other hand, Napoleon earned it. Marvel, so far as I can tell, cannot.
Maybe the bleakest thing, then, isn’t that a movie like Captain America: Civil War can get away with being 147 minutes long: It’s that it’s 147 minutes long because, though shorter, it’s more or less the Lawrence of Arabia of our time. This is the state of the Hollywood epic. It’s the closest kind of movie we have to that model — which, I guess, makes the God-tinged Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice this era’s Ben-Hur, and Wonder Woman our Cleopatra (albeit much less of a disaster). It shouldn’t seem like news that Nolan, of all people — Nolan, who is in some ways responsible for the overserious franchise bloat we’re experiencing today — has decided to buck the trend. But it does. And that inevitably helps his movie: Even if Dunkirk is bad, it’s too short not to be worth it.