1917Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/01/20 03:23:32
Watching the immersive World War I movie "1917" makes for a divided experience: it’s a fine and compelling story, and the level of craft is unquestionable, but the mode of storytelling may hold us at a distance rather than immersing us.We’re in Northern France, and a British general (hey look kids, it’s Colin Firth!) assigns two corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), to go deliver a message to keep a couple of battalions from walking into a German trap. In other words, in the middle of all this muck and death and gore, these two guys are sent off on a pacifist mission — with the added urgency that one of the soldiers who must be called back from the fight is Blake’s brother.
All well and good. But director Sam Mendes (American Beauty and the last two Bond films) has chosen to construct 1917 as seemingly one unbroken shot (with a lot of digital trickery and one blackout). Sometimes this works to plunge us, as well as our two protagonists, into the inferno — we become an invisible third soldier, tagging along. Sometimes we even forget about the technique when the camerawork isn’t so insistently clever and we’re not wondering how many times certain lengthy takes had to be filmed if someone sneezed or blew a line. But some of it feels overextended; the suspense drains away and we’re left to admire the filmmakers (including master cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith) as they strain mightily to accomplish … what? The artifice of the unending take doesn’t connect to anything thematically, and it’s draining.
Chapman and especially MacKay convey grinding exhaustion, which, because of the filmmaking that wrenches us into lockstep with them, we share. They’re not given much space or time to develop personalities, either attractive or repulsive. (If Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns had chosen to make one of both of them annoying idiots nonetheless entrusted with a great mission, it might’ve been suicidal for the movie, but possibly interesting for a while.) The men are blanks by design: we’re meant to project ourselves onto them. And though Mendes is probably too modern a director to make the heroes stoic and brave, he also doesn’t make them ugly or cowardly. They’re meant, after all, as a tribute to Mendes’ own grandfather, upon whose WWI experience (at least as he told it) 1917 is based. Generally, though, most of the war movies that might occur to you as great films weren’t made to honor a specific veteran in the filmmaker’s family. They were made to illuminate war, not the warrior.
Certain scenes, though lovely in passing or elaborately ghastly, seem to place themselves in competition with Dunkirk or Paths of Glory or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s last two movies. Despite the technique (which Hitchcock’s Rope inaugurated at feature length over 70 years ago), 1917 feels like a regression compared with Sam Mendes’ previous war movie, or warrior-without-combat movie, 2005’s Jarhead. That movie touched on a subject generally ignored by war pictures: the boredom of war, the stultifying existential dilemma of being trained to kill and then being thwarted from doing it. And yet, in the moment, our rarin’-to-go jarhead hero is caught between disappointment that he doesn’t get to kill and relief that he doesn’t have to kill. There’s a lot more to unpack and chew on in a sarcastic, very Gen-X half-satire like Jarhead than there ever is in 1917.
A film, or any work, can be extraordinarily well-wrought and still feel a bit pointless. An abundance of fiddly labor, little flicks of the wrist, all meant to leave us impressed by the challenge of the very doing of the work. Would 1917 work as well if edited conventionally? Well, its technique does give it a hurtling-along quality, a beat-the-clock pulse. And at certain points, we seem to be watching one of the corporals bob along down some rapids for minutes on end, and we feel we’re getting sidetracked from the mission, just as the corporal is. Our impatience becomes incorporated into the suspense. Other times, though, we just feel impatient, and we have to gobble the fleeting hits of poetry or beauty as we run along with the corporals."1917" uses its technique, finally, not to pull us into complicity with its characters but to deny us pleasure. It’s self-important and ungenerous.
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