Premise: Two young British soldiers during the First World War are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, and one of the soldiers’ brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.
There’s no denying that 1917 is a technical marvel. There’s also no denying that nearly every individual element of the film is impressive, from the score to the cinematography to the production design. Unfortunately, the elements that are left by the wayside are the ones it needs to be a complete experience that its audience can fully invest in, like memorable characters or an original story.
Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) directs 1917 as a two-hour film with a single, unbroken shot – think Birdman in the setting of World War I. We as filmgoers know that this is a lie, but the artistry with which it does so is the glue that holds the film together. In a war movie with a proposition like this, the single-shot gimmick seems like a necessary component to its urgency, but Mendes surely could have made this film just as successfully without it. Many times I felt like I was taken out of the film to focus on what was happening behind the camera, rather than in front of it.
The premise, as it is, centers on two young British soldiers, played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, on the front lines in northern France. The pair is called to deliver a message to the battalion the former’s brother belongs to, where it is unknowingly walking into a trap by the German forces. In order to do so, they must cross enemy lines – across half of France – on foot, all within 16 hours in order to prevent the attack. You can see, then, why the unbroken shot is theoretically relevant to the film. As its tagline states, “time is the enemy”, and what better way to suggest the urgency of time than to show a life or death mission in real time? Instead, the film plays out much like a video game, traversing from one location to the next, with brief cutscenes filled with cameos from the likes of Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong. And, much like a video game, 1917 clues its audience in to the lurking danger whenever the score builds.
War films – or more specifically, “mission films”, where the conceit centers on a specific mission – often have to make a critical choice over what to prioritize: character, or plot. Do you ground the film with richly drawn characters fighting against the machinations of war a la Platoon or The Deer Hunter, or do you focus on the fight for survival in the face of an impossible task, similar to Dunkirk or Saving Private Ryan, or even Rogue One: A Star Wars Story?
I found myself repeatedly returning to Christopher Nolan’s World War II drama Dunkirk, and comparing the successes of this film against it. Dunkirk is a film cast from a similar mold – a war movie, built around survival, with mostly unknowable characters (Tom Hardy’s character literally doesn’t show half of his face for almost the entire film). Indeed, that film also revolved around time, specifically overlapping narratives through the course of this one mission. But why does the concept work so well for Dunkirk, but not here? Why does its lack of character depth feel like less of an Achilles Heel? Perhaps it’s because Nolan’s film had a palpable sense of danger, and its expansive cast meant that each and every character was disposable. Meanwhile, with 1917, if either of the two main characters is killed, the film would essentially end. Without spoiling anything, there were several moments that should have been filled with uncertainty, but ultimately felt like Chapman and MacKay were covered in plot armor underneath their uniforms.
The success of 1917, though, lies in its creative team behind the scenes. Mendes, no stranger to action sequences after directing the two most recent James Bond films (Skyfall and Spectre), successfully builds a relentless tension, especially in the first third when the duo initially crosses no man’s land and goes to the German trenches. Roger Deakins, one of the living legends of cinematography, re-teams with Mendes after their collaboration on Skyfall, and it’s his incredibly fluid camerawork that helps to truly sell the single-take conceit. But credit should also be given to Deakins for his use of light, especially in a thrilling night scene through a bombed out French town, lit solely by bonfires and flares. Despite the overall melancholy I felt with the film, I can’t wait to see it again in IMAX, to soak in all the gorgeous details. Speaking of details, the production design team deserves mounds of credit for filling each scene with authenticity. Drab, empty fields and bunkers become fleshed out with corpses, artillery shells, mementos, and grime to make them look and feel more than just set dressing, as if real battles, occupied by real people, happened in these places. The final title card before the closing credits reveals that the film was dedicated to Mendes’ grandfather, who served in the Great War, and passed down his anecdotes to his children and grandchildren. And that’s what 1917 ultimately feels like: a lovingly told story, perhaps embellishing a detail here and there, from the perspective of someone that couldn’t get within arm’s reach of the heart of the matter.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a lifetime Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.