1917 (Directed by Sam Mendes, 119 minutes, USA, 2019)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC It’s officially peak awards season and that means war movies, because awards show voters love a man in uniform. Enter 1917 is the latest film by director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) who, along with cinematographer Roger Deakins (Bladerunner 2049, The Shawshank Redemption, pretty much every Coen Brothers movie), has produced a film that took home two Golden Globes recently causing a major upset in both the Best Picture and Director categories beating out Once Upon a time… in Hollywood, and The Irishman. Co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, 1917 was inspired by a true story as told to Sam Mendes by his grandfather.
Set in World War I, 1917 follows two young British soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) who are dispatched on an impossible mission. With the lines of communication severed, the two men have to traverse the devastated German countryside to hand deliver a message that could save 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother. You see, these 1,600 men are soldiers walking into a trap, thinking the Germans have retreated, when in fact they’ve just pulled back and regrouped, and are currently lying in wait. The crux of the film is a gimmick: shades of Birdman, the entire film transpires in a single uninterrupted take and the camera continues to roll as they journey through eerily abandoned German trenches, evacuated farms and war-ravaged ghost towns in the course of the film’s two-hour run time.
It’s ?Saving Private Ryan meets Dunkirk, but with one fatal flaw. Since the film never really stops its frantic pace, there’s just not enough character development to get the viewer emotionally invested and this disconnect is further compounded by a rather divisive story choice that occurs about midway through the film. Aesthetically the film is exquisite, Deakins vividly captures the carnage of war — the requisite blood, guts and shit blowing up all over the place — but the stylized camera work feels a tad too calculated and composed at times. The production design is period perfect and everything feels fetishistically authentic. But the longer the film plays out the more it begins to feel less like a film and more like a twitch stream, as our protagonists encounter obstacle after obstacle.
1917, simply stated, is pure visceral style over substance. The film at times is so overwhelmed by its gimmick and its need to push an almost non-existent narrative, that it sacrifices the connective tissue between the audience to keep upping the ante. While the performances are superb, their humanity gets lost in the flawlessly fluid movement of Deakins’ camera as it captures Blake and Scholfield’s odyssey through the eye of an unsympathetic god. While I can tell objectively appreciate this film as a stunning feat of cinematography, ultimately it’s to the detriment of the story, reducing the film to nothing more than a gorgeously rendered shooter on rails.