A film review by Craig J. Koban January 24, 2020

1917 jjj

2019, R, 119 mins.

 

George MacKay as Schofield  /  Dean-Charles Chapman as Blake  /  Mark Strong as Captain Smith  /  Andrew Scott as Lieutenant Leslie  /  Richard Madden as Lieutenant Blake  /  Benedict Cumberbatch as MacKenzie

Written and directed by Sam Mendes

Watching Sam Mendes' 1917 reminded me considerably of my feelings regarding Christopher Nolan's DUNKIRK.  

Both are historical war thrillers (albeit about different World Wars).  Both are unimpeachable technological marvels on an uncommonly high level and scope.  But both films feel kind of dramatically inert and lack serious emotional payoffs or any dramatic character development.  They are war films to be admired, for sure, but I nevertheless didn't find that either moved me in any discernable way, mostly because the techniques involved in respectively making them seem to overwhelm everything else. 

Almost the entire conversation about 1917 - the recent Golden Globe winner for Best Picture and now Oscar nominated in the same category - concerns its production artifice.  Much has been made about how Mendes has crafted his World War I film to look like it's the product of one uninterrupted tracking shot.  The film scholar in me understands that making an entire film of this type with "one shot" is logistically and artistically impossible.  To relay his story of a couple of brave soldiers crossing into various dangerous terrain in the war to end all wars, Mendes (alongside his legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins) filmed multiple and elaborate long takes that were then edited together - alongside using some digital tinkering and VFX - to sell the visual idea that 1917 is one shot from beginning to end.  I can't recall another film that has had as much pre-release publicity focus on its aesthetic as much as this one.   

This is certainly not the first film to do this (attempts date as far back as Hitchcock's 1948 thriller ROPE to more recent examples like BIRDMAN), leaving the critic in me left with examining how well Mendes pulls it off here.  On a pure conceptual and execution level, what's achieved in 1917 is pretty staggering, and some individual moments are amazingly executed and pack a breathtaking visceral wallop.  But the film also relies on an awful lot of pretty obvious editorial cheats that border on distracting at times that break the illusion.  I found myself so consciously focused on 1917's technique that caring about anything else happening in it became secondary.  Mendes' film is an absolute masterpiece of filmmaking ingenuity and production design, but on a level of an absorbing piece of historical drama it simply didn't have the lingering impact of great war films of the past that I'm sure it wants to be compared to.   

There's simply not much meat on the bones of this narrative.  The core premise here is pretty economical: A pair of British soldiers - Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) - are tasked with trekking through highly dangerous enemy terrain to deliver a message to another battalion that's about to walk into a German-made trap that could lead to the deaths of all 1600 of them.  It's April 6, 1917 (obvious wink to the title), and army intelligence has shown that a key German position that they think the nation will retreat from is actual a rope-a-dope maneuver that will sucker in their enemies to attack, leading to their easy decimation.  This is what leads Allied command to send the two aforementioned soldiers in through the horrors of No Man's Land and to the other Allied troops to warn and stop them.  To add further stress to their mission, Blake and Schofield have to reach the other troops by a specific time to save them.  And all other communications lines have been cut off.  Realizing the dangers ahead, the intrepid duo march onwards, but they soon learn that they may be in completely over their heads. 

 

 

The things that I greatly admired in 1917 are twofold: First, WWI is a terribly misrepresented (or not represented at all) war when it comes to the movies, so it's quite easy to embrace 1917 as a direct result.  Secondly, Mendes does a stellar job in the opening half of this picture in relaying the tangible level of unease that this pair of soldiers obviously experience in the early stages of their mission.  They know that saving a thousand-plus lives is in their hands and any slip-up on their end could mean life or death, which builds to palpable levels of against-the-clock suspense here.  Helping in this is the film's overall look, and 1917 captures the rawness of the nightmarish trench infused battlefields with a startling sense of haunting immediacy.  More times than not, this film is thrilling not because of the action, but by the soul crushing sense of silence on the bodies-covered scorched lands that the duo walk through, and the fear of what's about to pop out at any moment is indeed frightening.  You really feel like you're there with these two inordinately valiant souls.  The fields are littered with corpses, blown out vehicles, rats, mud, and everything else conceivably gag inducing to the eyes and nose.  Like great war pictures before it, 1917 captures the unspeakable levels of hell on earth in sweeping strokes. 

And, to be absolutely fair, Mendes and his team wholeheartedly commit themselves to their film's one-shot technique with a real commendable assurance.  Of course, Mendes is greatly aided in this ambitious endeavor by having the greatest living cinematographer in Deakins as his right hand man behind the camera, and on its own technical terms what they've achieved here is frequently awe-inspiring considering what an arduous shoot this must have been.  That, and everything seems to unfold in real time (which is a rarity for this genre), leaving audiences indeed feeling like fly-on-the-wall observers and witnesses to everything that the soldiers suffer through on their mission.  Some of the sequences are incredibly well oiled, as is the case with an early claustrophobic journey into a seemingly abandoned underground enemy bunker that will have many a viewer watching through their fingertips.  On primal levels, 1917 is undeniably potent.   

Yet, there's a problem with so much of the remarkable one-take shots and moments in the film: Mendes literally begs audiences to pay attention to the aesthetic, and the more one focuses on it the more the film's tricks become readily apparent.  There's a considerable amount of obviousness with some transitions, like using zip pans, segues from light to dark, and careful placement of foreground objects to block out and hide the edits...and a lot of them are quite easy to spot.  Making a film this way is no meager achievement.  At all.  It's a Herculean filmmaking endeavor.  Still, it leaves 1917 feeling more like a glorified demo reel of what's cinematically possibly with using the right shooting style, editing, and effects tinkering.  Some of the editorial tricks are invisible, whereas some stick out like proverbial sore thumbs.  And considering that all of the marketing for the film embellished its one-shot styling, 1917 is guilty of one big cheat in having the entire screen go black when one character is rendered unconscious midway through.  In this way, the makers here aren't playing completely fair with their much ballyhooed and established visual rules at all that everyone has been led to believe before going in. 

Am I being too hard on 1917?  I dunno.  Maybe.  The film is impressive piece of movie making engineering, to be sure, and the laborious levels of this shoot must have been an unthinkable endurance test for everyone involved in front of and behind the camera.  1917 is a bravura piece of show-stopping technique, but deep down...this is a gimmick film that doesn't really hit any seismic dramatic chords.  It's a curiously lacking effort when it comes having strong plotting or developed characters (we learn a bit about these two men though banter here and there, but not much else).  And yes, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's BIRDMAN employed, as mentioned, the exact same shooting style and creative choices, but the empowered character dynamics and fantastic performances made that film feel emotionally invigorating.  The same thing can't be said about 1917.  Ultimately, I believe that Mendes' film most definitely deserves big screen consumption; it's a technical dazzler of audacious filmmaking craft.  As for the other subtle intangibles that can make or break a film, though, 1917 doesn't quite rise to the occasion.  It's an inconceivably good looking work made with meticulous care and attention, but emotionally it's as cold and empty as the battlefields of No Man's Land. 

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