REVIEW: 1917

Posted by Matthew Thornton on Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Director: Sam Mendes
Writers: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Starring: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays
Runtime: 119 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      We all knew this film was going to look amazing. Roger Deakins is undoubtedly among the elite of Hollywood cinematographers. Sam Mendes has never directed a visually unappealing film. With the dramatic backdrop of the Western Front of World War I, this film seemed poised to become one the top spectacles of the decade as 2019 closed out. However, you need more than just spectacle to create a great film.

      The plot is fiction loosely based off a story told to Mendes by his grandfather Alfred who served in World War I and to whom the film is dedicated. Without interruption, you follow Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) who are tasked by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to deliver a message to Colonel Mackenzie of the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment calling off a planned attack on the seemingly retreating Germans because aerial reconnaissance shows they are about to run headlong into an ambush. There is personal investment for Blake as his brother is one of the 1,600 soldiers whose life is at stake, and, thus, he eagerly gets the duo on their way. From start to finish, the film is a series of long takes stitched together to look like one continuous single take sequence following the two protagonists as they traverse numerous perils in route to completing their mission.

      Ultimately, this film is a train of cinematographic vignettes, none of which are small feats to realistically pull off. Every sub-sequence of this film is expertly staged and choreographed. The abundance of forethought put into the filming by Mendes and Deakins during the planning phase pays off as complicated and physically-demanding scenes are executed dexterously without the aid of sly editing. The film’s best sub-sequence is an escape/chase sequence at night in a bombed-out French town where the ruins are beautifully lit by fires and flairs; on top of the intensity of the moment, the dynamic camerawork in tandem with the gorgeous lighting and set design pushes the film to its aesthetic pinnacle. The necessary cuts between the sub-sequences are not all that subtle but should not be distracting to the majority of viewers. The story starts in the afternoon, continues overnight, and concludes sometime the next morning. Obviously, the entire sequence of events takes place over more hours than the movie’s running time so there are necessarily a few points of implied time passage. While I thought one of those moments was pretty clever, another is incredibly jarring.

      The two leads give fantastic physical performances that I am sure were challenging for their bodies. At no point are the physical struggles and terrors of war unconvincing which is my biggest issue with Christopher Nolan’s similarly-themed 2016 film Dunkirk (I have yet to hear a convincing argument for why a film accurately depicting historical warfare should be rated anything less than R). Outside of the two protagonists, the majority of the named characters in this movie are played by notable English actors. Since the actors playing the main characters are rather low-profile and since no other characters are on screen for more than a few minutes, it took me out of the experience a little bit each time one of the more famous actors appeared; these appearances felt too much like cameos. This is not a huge issue and probably a facet most moviegoers will easily gloss over.

      However, outside of the visuals, there is really not much to this movie. They give generic characterization to both the protagonists that is largely uninteresting. A war film like Dunkirk, which is essentially devoid of characterization, still succeeds in that it pulls away and switches points of view, zooming in and out of specific parts of the ordeal in an unconventional and intense fashion. 1917 is zoomed in the entire time on the protagonists as necessitated by the presentation gimmick to which the filmmakers have committed. Consequently, I expected a stronger effort to be put into getting the audience to emotionally invest in the characters. Instead, this movie establishes the characters with such generic backgrounds and personalities to the point that I wish they had not attempted anything at all like in Dunkirk. The emotional weight of this movie is almost entirely communicated by the obnoxiously overbearing score by Thomas Newman. That is not to say that you are not caught up in the fates of the two young men. The movie hits quite hard at points, but the punches are to the stomach not the heart. It also did not help that the trailer spoiled most of the climax for me, and, consequently, the third act is quite underwhelming.

      I do not want to take anything away from the filmmaking achievement as this project is highly ambitious and one-of-a-kind all aspects considered. Alejandro Iñárritu did use a similar one-shot approach for Birdman (2014), but this film has a lot more in common with Iñárritu’s more intense outdoors affair The Revenant (2015). My experience was more similar to playing a war-based video game with very pretty graphics rather than that of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Band of Brothers (2001) which gave me visceral imagery along with deeper emotional investments within their respective narratives. I really think the one-take gimmick hamstrings the storytelling and boxes the filmmakers in, though they paint the walls of that box as beautifully as they can. That being said, I definitely recommend seeing 1917 and definitely catch it in theaters on the biggest screen you can.

RATING: ★★★


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