As a war film, 1917 doesn’t have much in the way of new ideas to offer — and maybe there aren’t any for the genre now — but it’s so elegantly crafted it takes the breath away. The story is simple: a pair of infantrymen have been given a message to deliver across nine treacherous miles of No Man’s Land in order to stop a doomed attack.
Faced with such simplicity, co-writer/director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) has chosen to tell the story as complexly as possible, utilizing a single camera shot, vignettes over plot and long moments of action over extended dialogue. It’s a recipe either for greatness or disaster, but Mendes manages to tip the balance towards greatness with confidence and assuredness that this will all work.
The biggest challenge, and the frequent reason why it seems like 1917 was made at all, is the single camera shot. Starting with a close focus of a soldier sleeping against a tree (and ending with a circularity which is almost as obvious as the major plot beats), Roger Deakins’ camera remains focused on Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) without blinking for 1917’s nearly two-hour run time. It’s not, at first glance, as visually impressive as some of Deakins’ best recent work like Skyfall or Blade Runner 2049.
The nature of No Man’s Land (the war zone between English/French and German front lines) being what it is, the palette is confined to various soggy greys and browns and an eye-level camera which has few opportunities for dynamic angles. That is a necessary side effect of the requirement to keep the camera constantly moving in an unending dolly shot which is amazing from moment one.
There are a few obvious stitches when something passes close enough to the camera to block a wipe or the view floats out a window requiring one of the erstwhile Corporals to run 100 mph to get downstairs, out the door and back in frame with nary a hair out of place — especially when the camera has to move from indoors to outdoors or the sun has to set — but for the most part it is seamless.
More impressive than that, however, and as much a mark of Mendes skill as Deakins’, is that it is also forgettable. After the first few tracking shots change direction in order to make room for the actors to move through crowded trenches, the shot itself falls into the background as it should. Eventually you’re just watching soldiers walk and talk and sometimes sit and following along with them becomes the most natural thing in the world.
It’s a reality Mendes plans for and uses to maximum effect, leaving important moments to happen just off screen in order to distract the audience and then have the biggest impacts linger and linger. It sometimes requires more than the usual helping of suspension of disbelief as entire motorized regiments stroll up from off camera to surprising effect, even though realistically they would have made a tremendous amount of noise before they arrived.
But Mendes is aware of the rules of cinema, of how nothing is real until experienced on screen and in frame, and he holds his audience in his hand from first frame till last.
The sparseness of it all also means dumping a lot of weight onto Chapman and MacKay’s shoulders. Though the vignettes themselves come across as cobbled from other war films — the jaded officer fallen into futility, dealing with a wounded opposing prisoner, sheltering with a civilian caught in the crossfire — the actors and presentation breath real life into them. Maybe not new life, 1917 doesn’t stake out any new ground from the war film genre, but life all the same.
The closest it comes to a real idea is failure as central to war. It exists as failure of politics and communication and takes place as a series of further failures – failure to save friends, failure to send accurate messages, failure to hold ground, failure to help anyone. Failure to achieve anything of any real permanence or consequence. The logical endpoint of that thought is so dark and cynical no one has the desire to go there, least of all an expensive piece of studio entertainment which wants to send people home with some sort of warm feeling in their heart. If they brought nothing else to Mendes’ capstone, Chapman and MacKay do that, endowing the spectacular visuals with humanity.
But make no mistake, this is a director’s movie as its technically-focused nature requires. And to that end, just as a virtuosic display of filmmaking craft it is worth taking in, preferably on the largest screen imaginable. Will it any to our understanding of war or create an everlasting piece action cinema to be turned to again and again over the years? Probably not. It’s a film with a gimmick at its heart and gimmicks wear out the welcome quickly. But what a gimmick!
1917 REVIEW RATING: 9/10
Universal Pictures will release 1917 in limited theaters on December 25, 2019 and will expand the movie wide on January 10th. You can view all our updates on the movie by clicking here.