The much-hyped release of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has got me thinking about the career of its enigmatic director, David Fincher. Despite having only directed nine features, Fincher is a major force in Hollywood, producing work that is both highly personal and commercially viable. Though rare in this day and age, Fincher is not the only one who has been able to strike that balance. When looking at some of Fincher’s contemporaries, one director who fits this mold is Christopher Nolan. Like Fincher, Nolan has really hit his artistic stride in the last decade and is garnering a tremendous amount of press for the release of his final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, next summer. What is interesting is that, while these two phenomenally successful filmmakers have many commonalities, particularly with their striking visuals and choice of subject matter, their back-stories and temperaments are quite different.

Like so many directors who emerged in the 90s, including Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher opted against film school. Instead, he got his education making his own 8mm films and working as a production assistant at Korty Films right out of high school. After a brief stint at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, Fincher made a name for himself directing commercials and music videos for such high profile artists as Madonna and Michael Jackson. His success in this arena led to 20th Century Fox hiring him to helm Alien 3. It was almost unprecedented that a major motion picture studio would entrust a valued franchise to a first time director. Despite a troubled production and mixed reception, Alien 3 ended up turning in a profit for the studio and put Fincher on the map. The critical and box-office success of his follow up film, the psychological thriller Seven, firmly cemented Fincher’s status as one of Hollywood’s most gifted young directors.

Like David Fincher, Christopher Nolan’s fascination with film began at a young age, making short skits with his father’s 8mm camera. Nolan honed his filmmaking skills at the University College London, where he graduated in 1993. After directing a couple of short films, Nolan managed to gather $6,000 to make his first feature, Following, which he wrote, photographed, edited, produced, and directed. Filmed in black-and-white over the course of a year, Following told the story of a struggling writer who gradually descends into a life of crime for inspiration. Despite having a very limited release, the film generated a tremendous amount of insider buzz. With that, Newmarket Films agreed to finance Nolan’s next project, Memento, which opened to rave reviews and solid box-office in the fall of 2000. After directing Insomnia in 2002, Christopher Nolan made waves in Hollywood when he announced plans to direct a reboot of the Batman franchise. The combined success of Batman Begins and its sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, skyrocketed Nolan’s career into another orbit and he is currently viewed as one of the most powerful directors in Hollywood.

In addition to having slightly different career paths, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan certainly have opposing personalities, particularly when it comes to their demeanors on set. While Nolan is generally viewed as being quiet, reserved, and docile, Fincher is animated, sarcastic, and occasionally profane. However, despite these differences, both men are united by a deep dedication to their craft, so much so that the term “perfectionist” is frequently tossed around when mentioning them. Fincher and Nolan are known to leave little work for the second units on their sets, overseeing virtually every shot themselves. They are also renowned for their intense preparation and meticulous attention to detail, all with the intent of completely fulfilling their vision. In fact, Fincher reportedly shot 268 hours worth of footage on his last film, The Social Network. While some might find this excessive, it clearly works for directors like Fincher and Nolan, as the two have crafted some of the most indelible screen images of the last decade. Who doesn’t recall that startling sequence in The Dark Knight Rises with the Joker hanging out of the stolen police car after his escape from jail? How could we forget when Tyler Durden gave The Narrator his chemical burn in Fight Club? These are just a couple of examples where Fincher and Nolan’s mastery of light, sound, and framing are on full display.

While both Fincher and Nolan’s work has been the subject of well deserved praise, they both have displayed weaknesses as filmmakers. What is interesting is that many of their faults are shared. For one thing, both these men have yet to master the art of subtlety. Fincher and Nolan have a penchant for dark, psychologically complex subject matter that tackles heavy themes such as loss, betrayal, guilt, and revenge. Despite dealing with such broad topics, both filmmakers have a tendency to strip them down to their essence, thus leaving little room for the audience to make their own judgments. For example, at the end of The Dark Knight, Batman is forced to go on the run after taking the blame for several murders committed by DA Harvey Dent. Instead of just letting the now fallen hero run off into a bleak, unknown future, Nolan and his screenwriters give Commissioner Gordon a hammy, closing speech about true heroism and fate. This same thing happened in the closing scene of The Social Network, where a legal assistant, played by Rashida Jones, basically sums up the fascinating, morally ambiguous Mark Zuckerberg character in the final line. In spelling out the moral as they perceive it, some of Fincher and Nolan’s films lack a certain mystique. Sometimes you need to leave things open to interpretation.

In addition to their lack of subtlety, Fincher and Nolan’s technical precision is as much a blessing as it is a curse. The two directors’ insistence on exactness with their shots sometimes leads them to ring hollow. Take into account that wonderful scene in On the Waterfront, where Terry Malloy talks with Edie Doyle in the park. During a rehearsal, actress Eva Marie Saint dropped her glove on the ground while taking it out of her pocket. As a lover of improvisation, Marlon Brando played out the rest of the scene holding the glove and eventually putting it on. This little gesture ended up humanizing the brutish Terry Malloy and it is one of the more touching sequences in the film. An event like this rarely happens on a David Fincher or Christopher Nolan set because both directors are so focused on capturing the images in their heads. With that, a lot of vigor and spontaneity get erased. Though most of Fincher and Nolan’s images are bold, striking, and brilliant, they can also be a little chilly and stiff at times. That is not a good thing.

David Fincher and Christopher Nolan are unquestionably two of the most exciting and influential directors in Hollywood at the moment. Their similar strengths and weaknesses as filmmakers make it almost impossible to give a persuasive argument on who has the more talent. It is all a matter of personal opinion. It will be interesting to see how time judges these two directors, but, for now, we can sit back and watch them duke it out on screen, like the cinematic gladiators that they are.

Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo hits theaters tomorrow and Nolan’s The Dark Night Rises will premiere this summer.