Samuel Brace with his top five protagonists of Christopher Nolan’s movies…
Christopher Nolan had established himself as one of the defining directors of the 2000’s by the time The Dark Knight was released, and in the current decade he has gone onto further enhance his filmography, cementing his place in the list of greatest living directors.
Nolan films get a lot of attention for their high concept plots and balance of blockbuster action with intricate and adult themes, but Nolan is also incredibly adept at providing movie audiences with complicated and fascinating protagonists, heroes, and the not so heroic, that are some of the most watchable characters anywhere in cinema. Ranking them is difficult, but based on factors such as complexity, charisma, intrigue, and the ability to defy adversity, the feat has been attempted.
So without further ado, here are the top five protagonists of Christopher Nolan movies.
“No one else can do my trick.”
In his follow up to Batman Begins, the next film from Christopher Nolan came in the form of The Prestige, perhaps his most high concept film to that date, a film that depicted the battling of two rival magicians, each one desperate to outdo the other.
Hugh Jackman’s Angier was a fantastic character in his own right, but it was Christian Bale’s Borden that truly stole the show, a character that took commitment to his craft to a whole new level, willing to do anything to assure that his trick would be greatest in the world.
Borden’s efforts are only made more impressive, however, by his rival Angier, and the extreme and desperate lengths that Jackman’s character went to in order to outdo his enemy. But Borden, somehow managing to stay as much a mystery as all the teleporting and scientific experiments taking place in the film, always found a way to come out on top, and paid a supreme sacrifice to ensure that Angier wouldn’t win.
“Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”
Riding the sea of momentum that was The Dark Knight, Inception was the perfect storm that came at the perfect time for Nolan, cementing his place as a brand all by himself. Inception, like most Nolan films, has a wonderful cast of characters, but this particular film has one of the more discussed and talked about protagonists around, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb.
Cobb has probably the most awesome job title of any Nolan character (except Batman, I guess), being that of a dream thief, but it’s the character’s charisma, thanks in no small part to DiCaprio, and his morose conflict with his dead (maybe) wife, to return to his kids, that sets this man apart.
Cobb’s escapades in the dream world, and the emotional intensity that come with dealing with Mal, provide some of Nolan’s best work, and though Cobb is a thief and no conventional hero, it’s a testament to the character at how desperate we are for him to wake up, complete his mission, and return to his children. The film’s ending only further enhances the character’s intrigue, and it doesn’t even matter whether or not Cobb was ultimately successful. As far as we are concerned, that totem can keep on spinning forever.
3) Batman/Bruce Wayne
“But the Joker cannot win…”
Of course, Batman had to appear on this list, the one superhero in the roster, perhaps the most famous of them all. Nolan’s interpretation of this famous character was a game changer, kicking off the gritty reboot extravaganza. Nolan managed to make Bruce Wayne as interesting as Batman himself.
Bale’s performance as both Wayne and Batman has been deservedly lauded, not only did we receive the most intimidating and realistic Batman ever, but he had us questioning just which of these character’s was the real him, was Batman the mask? Or was it Bruce?
Wayne truly went through the ringer during The Dark Knight trilogy, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, but he was never more tested than by Heath Ledger’s Joker, and it is this relationship that best defines the character. The lengths that Batman had to go to in order to save his city, while still clinging to his code, to his humanity, was stunning to watch, and it’s hard to imagine any cinematic interpretation of the character reaching such heights again.
“I’m on him.”
Flying in straight at number two in our list is the enthralling, mysterious, and heroic figure of Dunkirk’s RAF fighter pilot, Farrier, played with unparalleled intensity by Tom Hardy. Dunkirk is an ensemble piece, more than any other Nolan movie. It is a film filled with heroes, but thanks to the truly remarkable performance from Hardy, it’s the film’s fighter pilot that steals the show.
Like all the character’s in Dunkirk, we know nothing about Farrier, he’s just a man doing his job, fighting for his country. And watching him do so is a truly wonderful thing. Farrier faces incredible obstacles during the movie, not only is he fighting, much of it alone, against the intimidating threat of the Nazi Luftwaffe, but towards the film’s end he knows by doing so he won’t be returning home.
The fact that our only window into this man’s soul comes via his eyes, it’s quite the feat how invested we become in his exploits. His skill in the air, and incredible sacrifice to save as many lives as possible, knowing the cost to his own safety, makes Farrier a truly memorable protagonist. A man of few words but great action, a man that could see the bigger picture, willing to put himself in the clutches of evil to save men he didn’t know.
(A special mention to George, a hero at Dunkirk, for those small acts of bravery)
“I love you, forever, and I’m coming back.”
Continuing Nolan’s theme of fathers trying to return home to their children, Interstellar delivers the director’s most ambitious and emotional film to date, and a lead character that truly carries the weight of the world on his back. Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper is perhaps Nolan’s most heroic character, a man sent into the deepest parts of space to save the world and its inhabitants from extinction.
Interstellar is an overwhelmingly large story, a journey that sends Cooper through wormholes and into the most hostile environments of any Nolan picture. But it’s how wonderfully intimate and personal the film also becomes that speaks to Cooper’s protagonist credentials. Cooper is trying to save the world, but his fuel and his ultimate desire is returning to his family, seeing his daughter once again. It’s a heartbreaking task, being sent on a suicide mission to another galaxy, knowing that you’ll likely never see your loved ones again… it’s impossible to imagine and it’s the most selfless and typically heroic act in any of Nolan’s movies. One could say he didn’t have a choice – save the world or you and your family die – but try telling that to Cooper.
This is Nolan at his most personal, there is always something of the director in his protagonists, but here it is never more evident, and the results never more devastating. And being forced to watch Cooper lose all that he loves, light-years away, with seemingly no chance of accomplishing his mission, is an unforgettable movie experience. The universe rewards Cooper ultimately, while never giving him back the time he lost, and with Interstellar, Nolan provides his audience with his most human of heroes, facing the most formidable opponent of all. Time.