1917 is a towering technical achievement cut off at the knees by its own hollowness. A gutsy movie with no guts as it were. A Word War I movie, seemingly, shot in a single take by the great savior of cinematographers Roger Deakins behind the camera crafting exquisite beautiful and haunting imagery.
But about halfway through the film, I found myself checking my watch.
Yes, Sam Mendes has pulled off an impossible task worthy of Christopher Nolan or Stanley Kubrick with the sheer craftsmanship and daring cinematic wizardry on display. Except he has also somehow made an apolitical war movie about nothing besides the war but doesn’t really say anything about the war or its effect on the people in it.
Let me be clear, 1917 is a masterpiece. Mendes has done an incredible thing both in scope and verve. Yet, the movie itself is fine.
1917 starts out strong and with such immediacy and a breakneck pace it takes us a while to catch up. Deakin’s camera is a living creature unto itself as it hovers like the eye of God observing all before it with cool remorseless clarity. Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) have been tasked with finding the 2nd British Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment and hand-deliver a note calling off a planned attack.
It’s a bit of a cruel joke in that a movie about a war which is infamous for how feckless the commanding officers were in regards to the lives of their men that it should hinge so heavily on the Officer’s concerns about troop loss. But these honest Tommies take their mission seriously, especially since Tom’s brother is a lieutenant in the 2nd and he can’t wait to get back to him. Mendes takes great care in never letting us forget the constant danger, these two, or anyone else in the war, is in.
The script by Krysty Wilson-Cairns and Mendes is at its best when the characters are talking. As they walk through the trenches, drawing nearer and nearer to the spot in which they must cross over the top and into no-man’s land. Tom and Willy’s banter help us get to know these two. When there is dialogue 1917 comes alive and feels as if we are being immersed in the period.
The two bump into Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott) who guides them through the trench to the spot where they must go over. When they first meet, the Lieutenant asks the two what day it is. “It’s Friday, sir.” “Friday! We were all wrong. We’ve been trying to figure out what day it is for the past few hours. This stupid idiot thought it was Tuesday.”
Moments such as this allow 1917 to feel as if we are watching real life. They lend a sort of humanity to the film where we are in awe of the people and the personalities before Mendes and Deakins go back to remind us it’s not people we’re here to stare in awe at, it’s them. Despite everything going on in front of the camera, it’s the behind the camera stuff which demands our attention. “How did they do that?” “Oh did you see the cut! That must be where the shot ends.”
I’ve grown to hate the term, style over substance, because it usually ignores that the style is trying to say something in of itself, or what’s more that the style is the point. But with 1917 the style isn’t the point it’s the doing that’s the point.
MacKay and Chapman are terrific. MacKay has the largest burden because he spends most of the film by himself. The two show a balance of fear, irritation, and confusion, all swirling behind their eyes as they stumble and crawl across the wasteland of the muddy battlefield. The back and forth of the two is the magic dust which makes what little of 1917 so engaging actually work.
At times watching MacKay try to outrun German soldiers, German bullets, and just flat out trying to survive I found my jaw hanging open at Deakin’s masterful framing and lighting. In an odd way, Deakins and Mendes have shot much of 1917 like a videogame. It feels like we are watching a character, who is us, trying to get to safety, or the next mission.
I don’t mean to use the videogame analogy as a complaint or an insult, quite the contrary. It works in a way no video game movie has ever worked, by being truly immersive. One scene has MacKay’s Schofield running amongst a bombed-out city with the night sky periodically exploding above him illuminating the landscape as if someone had turned on an overhead light; all the while he is trying to dodge enemy fire.
Strange that the same afternoon I saw 1917, the Pentagon announced that we had ourselves just committed an act of war. I know some don’t like when I talk about my politics or current events in my reviews but art doesn’t exist in a vacuum and neither do I. I saw 1917 steeped in the breathlessness of a possible second war about to begin my most prevailing thought throughout is how it’s like a videogame-but not in a bad way.
François Truffaut once said, “There is no such thing as an anti-war film.” The images of the horrors once committed to film would seem eerily poetic and nightmarish but ultimately make it feel all too dreamlike. Maybe it’s the news, or maybe I’m just missing something. But the whole time I was watching 1917 I couldn’t help but think Truffaut was right.
But then I realized that whether he was or not wasn’t the point because it soon dawned on me I don’t think either Deakins or Mendes cared. Ultimately that’s the problem. 1917 is a war film that doesn’t care if it’s a war film or about war, or about anything. It just wants to impress us.
Consider me impressed. 1917 is a terrific film filled with action, thrills, and dazzling sights. But it lacks a soul or a spine in which to hang it all on.