1917 is a movie that sucks you into its wake. Beginning in a quiet field with soldiers napping peacefully on a sunny day, the movie quickly plunges you into the horrors of World War I, as director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) embeds you with two soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) who are sent on a near-impossible suicide mission through the trenches and no-man’s land to stop an advancing company of British troops from walking into a death-trap. And while their journey is indeed compelling and nerve-wrecking, the movie’s calling card is the audacious filmmaking accomplishment Mendes and company achieved: The entire plight of Blake and Schofield is shown in one continuous take, giving us as close to a boots-on-the-ground feel as possible. This is both what is most impressive about the movie and what keeps 1917 from becoming truly great.
The stakes for the tragically young-looking Blake and Schofield are as simple as they are impossibly high. An apparent German retreat has prompted thousands of British soldiers to pursue them unknowingly into a trap. With Blake’s brother amongst those presumably marching to their deaths, it is up to Blake and Schofield to sneak behind enemy lines to hopefully intercept the advancing British troops in time to avert disaster. It is nearly an impossible task that the duo have mere hours to complete. With this single-minded goal in mind, Mendes makes it impossible for the viewer not to be immediately fully invested in the outcome.
After initially getting their marching orders the movie quickly descends into the hellish landscape that is the Western Front and becomes an unbelievably tense thriller. Blake and Schofield traverse through mud lakes created by bombs, over and around numerous bodies, through trenches and tunnels, and always mere seconds away from becoming another casualty statistic. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins constantly and expertly oscillate between moments of claustrophobic terror when Blake and Schofield are in danger and moments of calm when it becomes clear just how small these two soldiers are in this eerie landscape. While the narrow POV does not necessarily allow us to feel the full scope of the horrors of World War I, but it certainly works in giving us a visceral connection to what is happening onscreen.
Unfortunately the movie’s ambitious technical achievements end up hurting more than helping the immersive story Sam Mendes is trying to tell. Deakins’ cinematography here is indeed exemplary but as with almost any long shot, the longer it goes the more showy it feels. I never felt completely embedded with our brave duo and found myself instead distracted by how the movie’s sequences were shot. Like in Birdman, another famously “one-shot” movie, I unconsciously began looking for the secret cuts (they are indeed there), marveled at the blocking of various scenes, and found myself wondering how the story was going to unfold given the particular cinematographic limitations Mendes had put his crew under. In other words, while the movie is in so many respects a technical miracle, I was always fully aware that I was watching a movie and never felt fully transported to the hellish war fields being depicted onscreen.
The one-shot approach also proves problematic because by keeping the camera strictly on our two soldiers and never cutting away from them, the movie felt in moments like a third-person video game. This is especially true when paired with Newman’s score, which remained fairly innocuous or tranquil during the quiet moments but would immediately shift into a nerve-wrecking pulse the moment any action would get underway. Anyone who has played an open-world video game within the last ten years or so would immediately recognize that musical cue as a sign that you were about to enter an action set-piece, killing the verisimilitude Mendes was so desperately trying to set up (it doesn’t help that in the action set-pieces the camera tends to hover on our protagonists backs in ways similar to third-person action-adventure games). I will grant that the similarities may speak more damningly to a video game culture that would game-ify something as terrible as war than to the movie itself, but the parallels between the two are unfortunately inseparable.
Sam Mendes obviously has set out to make a monument to the lost generation of soldiers who fought and died for their countries in what was mostly a pointless war. And while that is certainly a noble task the movie never quite reaches that lofty ideal partly because the movie, by the nature of its filmmaking approach, draws attention to itself. The end result is a movie that is certainly thrilling in the moment and poignantly sad in the immediate aftermath, but only lingers in the mind in so far as it left me wondering how they pulled it off.
Runtime: 119 minutes
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Starring Dean Charles-Chapman, George MacKay, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Richard Madden
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