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.
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
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.
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
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.