The Oscar-nominated feature 1917 is an undoubtedly impressive film on a technical level. Much of the con- versation surrounding the film—deservedly so—pertains to it being apparently shot in one continuous take. The movie follows two British soldiers during World War I who have to sneak across enemy lines in order to prevent a nearby battalion from entering a trap laid by the Germans. With some help from clever camera-movement and editing trickery, di- rector Sam Mendes captures the soldiers’ perilous trek across the scorched war grounds of France in one mostly continu- ous shot, displaying the extent of Mendes’s skill with a camera. By spending every waking second of the characters' mission alongside them, you walk out of the theater feeling almost as if you were really there. That is the greatest achievement of the film: the audience doesn’t just watch it, they experience it.
Additionally, the cinematography of the consistently great Roger Deakins is also on full display in 1917. It is a visually rich film, contrasting the deep greens of the pastoral French countryside with the scorched remains of trench battlefields. The progression of time is similarly encapsulated in the cin- ematography as the spectrum of daylight hues into night add to the atmosphere of these soldiers’ journey.
The greatest flaw of the film is its negligence to craft a compelling narrative. Mendes’ effort to capture World War I on film succeeds on a technical level but misses the mark on being a story that has something to say. Across the war-film genre though, what separates the good from the great (Paths of Glory, Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan) are filmmakers who utilize their formal mastery to enhance their telling of a story.
In 1917, the reverse seems to be the case, as I can large- ly strip the narrative down to the characters (whose names I cannot remember) needing to go from point A to point B. They exist to be in scenarios that demonstrate Mendes’ direction and Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography, rather than be anyone to whom the audience can have some sort of emotional attachment or reaction. The primary actors in the film, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, give fine performances with what they are given, but inevitably end up being ciphers for the audience's emotions. This isn’t nec- essarily a bad thing—Matthew Modine’s Joker in Full Metal Jacket, for example, effectively explored warfare through simi- lar means—but in 1917 the blankness of the characters seems more like an oversight than a deliberate artistic decision.
The film is an experience for the audience, but it is largely an experience with no greater narrative backbone. It displays the horrors of the war (decaying corpses, hailing artillery, scorched Earth) but fails to communicate anything deeper than the standard “war is hell” adage. The film does represent a technical milestone for the war genre, though, and while emotional resonance may be minimal, it is still a compelling watch.
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures