In the early days of television there was a show called “You Are There,” which presented famous events in history as if they were unfolding before your eyes. Now it is as if you are there for the historic rescue at Dunkirk during World War II as envisioned in gigantic action drama written and directed by Christopher Nolan.
I have criticized Nolan’s work in the past for his muddled and shallow screenplays, such as in “Memento,” “Inception” and “Interstellar.” (See Search.) “Dunkirk” is straightforward, eschewing the leadership of Winston Churchill and what the war was about. We barely see Nazi swastikas on German planes engaged by British Spitfires. Nolan concentrates on showing on a massive scale both the war’s horrors and the heroism that has made the evacuation of troops at Dunkirk legendary.
With remarkable depiction of the scene via cinematography, staged action and special effects, Nolan and his entourage have done a superb job of focusing on war’s toll in both an overview and close-ups of individuals playing a role as victims or rescuers.
However, the effort at portraying reality is severely undercut by the incessant, pounding, annoying score by Hans Zimmer. Soldiers at Dunkirk didn’t hear music accompanying their plight. The score is the kind that delivers a message that we are watching what resembles a typical Hollywood action saga. This is a film that cries out for only the sounds of gunfire, waves, cries of the wounded and whatever natural sounds can be evoked without being drowned out by a score.
On the other hand, Nolan wisely keeps dialogue to a minimum. Where there is intimate drama depicted verbally, the film its weakest. The best moments come from the reflection on faces, as when Kenneth Branagh as a navy officer registers amazement and delight upon seeing the fleet of small rescue boats arriving from England. His look evokes the recognition of the patriotic and deeply human heroism for which the Dunkirk rescue is known.
Among the most effective situation is the sight of men floundering in the water after the ship they were on has been bombed, and the utter horror of men swimming and burning in oily water set afire by bombs.
A stoic performance by Mark Rylance as a man who takes a small boat to the rescue is symbolic of the other heroes and boats joined in the task. There a few other everyman-type performances on which the film centers, but mostly the dominant force of the film is the massive amount of action with emphasis on death and destruction and the effects on victims.
Given the expertise that has gone into “Dunkirk,” I wish that it had more of a documentary flavor than the aura of a Hollywood epic with its annoying score that suggests fiction rather than fact. A Warner Brothers release. Reviewed July 21, 2017.