The MPAA has announced some ratings for upcoming films, and among them is Christopher Nolan’s highly-anticipated new movie, Dunkirk. The MPAA rated the film “PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.” For those who don’t know, the story is based on Operation Dynamo, a rescue mission that saved 338,226 soldiers from being stranded in Dunkirk, France.
Nolan recently said that the movie will have a triptych structure, telling the story from three points of view—air, land, and sea:
“The film is told from three points of view. The air (planes), the land (on the beach) and the sea (the evacuation by the navy). For the soldiers embarked in the conflict, the events took place on different temporalities,” Nolan said (via Google translation). “On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; And if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry an hour of fuel. To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure; Even if the story, once again, is very simple.”
But as we’ve seen from the trailer, no one is “safe”, nor would they be. It’s the middle of war, and the life and death stakes are inherent in the setting. As you can see in the trailer, soldiers are dead on the beach and the living are attacked from above.
So how do you honestly show that in a PG-13 film? Christopher Nolan has gotten away with violence in his films before, but they’re still fairly bloodless. What the PG-13 rating implies is that while there will be death in this movie, it’s not going to be at the level of Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge. And that’s troubling because war has a cost, and real people fought and died at Dunkirk. To avoid showing the ugliness of the conflict just so you can get a rating that allows teenagers to buy tickets without a parent doesn’t seem right.
To be fair, we don’t know exactly how the violence in the film will be portrayed, and Nolan is a genius filmmaker who has earned our trust. But any war film that takes place in the middle of battle is in a precarious position if it thinks it can handle the gravity of the situation with only a PG-13. We’ll see how it plays out.
Dunkirk opens July 21st.