1917 and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by Sam Mendes
Is it a 2019 movie or a 2020 movie? I mean I guess it’s the former as I doubt Universal wants to wait until NEXT February for it to win a bunch of Oscars, but while some critics may have gotten to see it back in December I only have the chance to see it now right alongside other sterling January releases like The Grudge and the upcoming Dolittle. Well now that they finally let the general public see this, does it live up to the hype it’s been building up over the last few weeks, or is there a reason they held it off until the dumping ground month despite the pedigree behind it? Let’s find out!!
Will Schofield and Tom Blake (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are just two dudes in the British Army milling around France during World War I with the rest of their unit as they try to wait out the German army who are on the other side of No Man’s Land on whatever battlefield they’re on. That’s all about to change however as the general Colin Firth has given them a critical mission to deliver new battlefield orders to a company several miles away that as it turns out has Blake’s brother serving in it. It seems that recent changes in the German Army’s movements have given the impression that the company can secure victory with one final push that they’ve scheduled for the morning, but new information has confirmed this to be a trap that will no doubt lead to most if not all of the sixteen hundred men in that company to their untimely deaths. If these two can get this information to the commanding officer in time, the attack will be stooped and all those men will be saved (or at least die a much more timely death), but it is not an easy undertaking as German soldiers are still scattered across the region; not to mention the environmental hazards like traps, rain, mud, and both sunlight AND darkness coming with their own troubles as well. Can they makes it in time so that these soldiers can live to fight another day? What hardships will they encounter on this journey, and are both of them ultimately up to the task? Did Sam Mendes actually make a 007 prequel without telling us!? I mean they’re making a Kingsman prequel, so why not?
While there may not be a set formula for what a movie needs to have in order to be good, I feel like what was intentionally left out of this one is what’s holding it back from being great. If a movie can be judged solely on its cinematography, scene composition, and musical score, this would already be fast tracked for one of the best movies of the year and I can see why others may feel that to still be the case after seeing it. For me though, it really is that lack of engaging characters and a frustratingly straightforward narrative that keeps me from being truly enthralled with the movie. Still, it manages to better than Dunkirk so it has that going for it at least! Boy, are my war movie takes super spicy!!
The number one reason to go out and seek this movie is for the film making itself which is quite a sight to behold and conveys amount of depth and history in spectacular fashion. Early on there’s a scene where Will and Tom are carefully traversing an abandoned battlefield; the remains of a hundred stories from a hundred men going unsung now and forever. The dead soldiers, the overturned tank, the craters formed by shovels, shells, and erosion, all on full display like tangible ghosts haunting our heroes on their immense journey. Stuff like this is what kept my attention in the movie, much more so than the single shot gimmick which just feels like any other tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal. While it was no doubt an impressive feat to make it all work, especially the timing of everything, it’s just not something I’ll award bonus points for and is simply overshadowed by the rest of Roger Deakins’s cinematography which once again puts all other filmmakers on notice. There’s a particularly memorable sequence in a bombed out city during the dead of night where flares are going off to try and illuminate the streets, and the interplay between the harsh bright light and the dark impenetrable shadows it creates is a sight to behold and for whatever reason had me thinking of Fantasia while watching it; perhaps due to the rather lovely music that was playing through the scene which only added to the melancholy of the situation. It’s certainly impressive when characters walk from one place to another without a cut, but it’s these moments of pure cinematic craftsmanship that will stick with you long after you’ve forgotten how few cuts where in it.
Now one of the concerns about making a movie set during the First World War is whether or not it glorifies the conflict the same way films normally do with World War 2 films as the context for which the first war occurred don’t translate so easily to that broad Good Guys Vs Bad Guys spectacle. While I wouldn’t say this movie is FREE from glorification as the film does indeed prirotize looking grand above being true to the grimy nature of the conflict (other than the year which would only be relevant to those who already know about the war, it’s impossible to discern exactly what each side’s relative status is in the movie), I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly HEROIC narrative which is what kind of stuck out for me. Their quest may not be futile, but no matter how much torture they put themselves through to save the lives of these men, it’s ultimately a very small piece of an impossibly large machine that will keep on going with or without this mission and the men whose lives hang in the balance of it. To that point, it does make some sense to tell the story in this fashion as the smallness of the characters in this movie is reflective of the smallness of the soldiers in the war itself. Will and Tom’s overwhelming plight is somewhat mirrored in just how intense the cinematography is and how little they ultimately stand out compared to everything else happening on screen. This is perhaps what separates this from what I feel is its closest counterpart The Revenant which didn’t really do it for me because the endurance test felt rather one note when the intent was to be exhilarating and triumphant. This manages to not only do the tour ride of unimaginable misery a lot better (stronger use of the tension/release cycle), but makes the oppressive and almost one note nature of the story into a feature rather than a bug as the cinematography and themes complement each other. What it ultimately comes down to is not if this movie is good at executing what it set out to do, but whether or not this is the kind of movie you want to see even if it’s done well, and that’s where I’m splitting off from many of the other critics out there.
The movie has a great look, sets and impeccable mood, and even manages to mine tension out of the situations the characters find themselves in, but there’s just not a story here that I can grab onto. Everything character wise is either utilitarian or reactive which makes sense for the kind of scenario this is, but in doing so they just feel like more pieces cluttering the sets rather than what the sets are supposed to be there for. The characters in this, especially the celebrity cameos, are just more tools for the filmmakers; like little green army men for someone’s imaginary story, albeit with a few more points of articulation. It’s because of this that I ended up marveling at the movie more than I was engaged with it, and while it is indeed arresting at times to look at, it’s ultimately a fleeting high and never rises above it.
Watching this movie, I was reminded of a theme park ride; especially the more modern ones in that 4D style. The goal of those is to overwhelm the rider with so much sensory input that you get a thrill just from being in the middle of it, and while that’s not necessarily a negative as I do love riding those things, there’s also a reason they don’t run for almost two hours. If you’re looking to buzz your senses on non-stop visual stimuli then I could definitely recommend this movie, and there’s JUST enough of an emotional through line for the experience to not become utterly weary. However, there’s just nothing else here besides the core thrill ride aspect to it, and for that reason I can’t say it’ll be for everyone as it certainly wasn’t quite to my tastes. If you have any interest in seeing it, I’d recommend taking a gamble on seeing it in the theater as you REALLY want that full immersive experience that’ll be hard to recreate on a home theater setup. Otherwise, you’re probably better off sticking with Saving Private Ryan which overall does a better job of balancing its spectacle with its story. Now I’m thinking of the Bond movie we would have gotten if Spielberg wasn’t rejected to direct one. Thanks a lot, Cubby!