MPAA Rating: R | Rating: ★★★
Release year: 2019
Genre: War Director: Sam Mendes
Sam Mendes’ passion project 1917 is like watching someone play a very lifelike WWI video game. Filmed by the almighty Roger Deakins as a sort of elaborate one-take (think Birdman, but with bombs), the film quite literally follows two young British soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), as they embark on a risky mission across enemy lines to deliver a message for nearby war-hungry Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch): the Germans have set up an ambush, and any attack on them will result in catastrophic loss of life. One of those lives is Blake’s brother (Richard Madden), making the stakes more personal, the urgency more felt.
The “single shot” aesthetic creates a paradoxical experience of immersion and detachment. On the one hand, by following these two men and having their mission play out in “real time,” we’re invited to feel the same sense of dread they feel, to wonder as to what will be around the next bend or over the trench wall. When they’re surprised by explosions or gunfire, so are we; when they’re walking great distances without a fight and having a personal chat, we’re right there with them. On the other hand, the cinematography also invites us to pay attention to the cinematography, and not the story or characters. Which is fine, because the characters aren’t particularly fleshed out and the story is rather simplistic and formulaic once it all plays out. There isn’t necessarily a larger exploration of the horrors of war or the politics of the era here, nor is there enough of an emotional connection built with Blake and Schofield to elicit any strong affections. MacKay gives the stronger performance (he’s also simply given more to do), jumping between fear and despair with pale wide-eyed fragility. Yet I couldn’t help feel like they, as well as every other anonymous solider, are merely avatars in the video game, ciphers we’re supposed to download our emotions into in order to make the experience seem more thrilling.
Still, Deakins’ cinematography is certainly worth one’s time, and 1917 plays well in a large theatrical environment. Because the events take place primarily during the day (albeit there is a nighttime scene in the final act), it’s very bright with natural sunlight, allowing us to see every little gritty detail. The green grass and gray skies emphasize the horizon, although there is often a “fog of war” which obscures our view (like a video game!). Up close, the muddy trenches and mutilated bodies are in full view, and the meandering never-blinking camera often lingers on sights which should make us shiver. The passing of time is noticeable here, because it felt off to me from “real time” despite the long-take effect (e.g. the soldiers have to go 9+ miles through a war zone on foot, while the film itself is under 2 hours—are they moving at constant 4-5 mph pace?). Sometimes the seams begin to show. Still, despite (or perhaps because of) its video game vibes, 1917 is an ambitious and thrilling war film, a filmic formal exercise with gumption.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8579674/