Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring: George Mackay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch
The most surprising thing about “1917” is that its most hyped about feature, the long one-shot take throughout the film, is probably the least interesting thing about it.
The second most surprising thing is that the movie still remarkably holds up well despite it. In fact, the movie could not have timed its wide release at a better time.
With the world seemingly on the brink these days, war is on the tongue of many people and the various hawks of the country are all too happy to beat their drums once again to send other peoples’ sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers to do the fighting for them. People shouldn’t need reminding that war, even at its most noble of causes, is an inherently ugly business that ruins lives around the world. Yet time and time again people, often with nothing they can actually lose in the fight, get excited for it almost like it’s the Super Bowl.
(Like the NFL though the game is typically run by old, out of touch, wealthy white men all too eager put typically brown people in harm’s way.)
Sam Mendes’ “1917” is in the same vein of war storytelling as Christopher Nolan’s brilliant “Dunkirk” but where the WWII film saw great triumph in victory, Mendes’ WWI angle chooses hollowness and tragedy in its senselessness.
“1917” tells the story of Lance Corporal’s Tom Blake and Will Schofield during the waning years of WWI along the German front contested by the British. The two are brought in for a special mission to relay orders to the 2nd Battalion to call off an imminent assault on the Germans the next morning to avoid a disastrous counter offensive that will cost the lives of 1600 men, Blake’s brother among them. The two set off in a race against time to ensure that needless blood isn’t spilt but it proves dangerous as they must trudge across the dreaded No Man’s Land to deliver the message before it’s too late.
History repeating itself is, well, as old as history itself and those who don’t learn it are just as common.
As our man-child of a president continues to poke the bear of a potentially dangerous adversary the people who stand to lose the most are the soldiers and the citizens involved in both countries. Like the Iraq War millions of innocent civilians will likely die and it’ll cost our country trillions of dollars all because the president gets a chubby at the idea of killing Middle Easterners. In the hyper social media age of the world we can see the public’s responses to this potential catastrophic loss of life in real-time and let’s just say waaaay too many people were/are comfortable with dropping nukes on a sovereign nation whether you think they deserve it or not.
(Repeat after me: Civilians are not responsible for the actions of their government.)
“1917” sets out to make it very clear early what a waste of time this fighting is and the kind of horrible loss of life it costs to wage. The visuals of downtrodden, weary, burnt-out soldiers early on in the film followed by the vast deathly wastes of No Man’s Land makes Mendes’ anti-war message poignant from the start.
Mendes wants the viewer to be immersed and overwhelmed by all this; he doesn’t want you to simply be a spectator to the conflict but actively feel what it’s like as much as possible. As you view the carnage around the characters it’s hard not think about how senseless it all is, to die in these unmarked graves, to have your final breathes in a muddy crater alongside other equally pitiful souls.
The film does most of its talking visually here because of it, allowing the scenes of death and senseless carnage to tell you all the important story beats it needs. How the characters Schofield and Blake react to all this is also important. Their surrogates for the audience, of course, but deliver plenty of character moments throughout its arduous journey. The film keeps it simple, never diving into needless exposition on the fighting or what brought them to battle but just seeing how they all act as it all happens to them tells the viewer all they need to know.
(Sometimes words and big closeups aren’t important to character.)
None of this is possible without the impressive cinematography on display in each scene as the film captures these immense set pieces and battles both beautifully and hauntingly and it will hold your attention consistently throughout its extensive runtime.
But what about the one-shot film-making you might ask?
A lot was made of it in the pre-film hype and indeed it can be truly impressive in many scenes but if there is one knock against this film it’s that it is kind of forgettable. It’s not because it’s bad per se but that in many sequences you kind of just forget it’s happening and doesn’t add much extra to the scene. It doesn’t take away from the film of course, but a film like “Birdman” for instance did it much better and more seamlessly. Perhaps a more traditional approach for this story in some sequences would’ve made a slightly better film instead.
This all said the movie’s greatest moment is largely because of this particular film-making style and you absolutely must see it on the biggest screen possible to digest its full scope.
If you get too wrapped up in what this one-shot stuff doesn’t do well, you may miss the forest for the trees. “1917” hits all the right notes narratively for a war film of this kind regardless of its initial gimmicky premise. It might be easy to think this movie was made just to see what a film of this style would look like with this direction but if you focus too hard on this you’ll miss a fairly engrossing journey from start to finish.
The fast-paced nature of the film will have a lot of fans humming along to its ticking-clock structure like that of “Dunkirk” but will come away with a much different feeling compared to Nolan’s WWII epic.
Where Nolan saw hope and triumph in the great struggle for victory with the British escape from Dunkirk, Mendes likely see’s only pain in the aftermath of bloody fighting regardless of winners or losers. This isn’t to say war can’t have true moments of glory but maybe the public needs to be reminded of the uglier side of it all and that sometimes there is no victory even when there is one.
When the general public is all too giddy about sending other people to die half-away across the world in a conflict they barely understand it shows just how ignorant we all are of what these wars really costs. We aren’t rooting for a hometown football team when our soldiers go to war; the star QB doesn’t get sent home in a casket if he doesn’t throw enough touchdowns.
(There would literally be no Bengals left in Cincinnati if football was waged the same way as war…)
“1917” is a bitter reminder that war is, even at its best, senseless and destructive. You can only begin to imagine what this level of violence might be like and this film gives us a staged but nonetheless real and grounded taste of it.
History will only continue to repeat itself over and over again until the supposed “support the troops” side of the country and world begins to truly understand this but until then we are doomed to never learn.
WWI was only 100 plus years ago, folks. Don’t be so excited to see that kind of destructive senselessness again…
5 out of 5