The enemy is dug in waiting to slaughter two English battalions that believe this enemy is exposed and on the run in full retreat. If the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment is not told to call off this attack on the Germans, some 1,600 men will be cut to pieces. The only way to alert them is with a hand-delivered message. Two men, two impossibly young men, are given the job.
It is the Spring of the third year of the first World War. Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) have only a few hours to deliver this message. First they will have to travel, mostly on foot, over miles of flat and exposed terrain, that until a few hours ago, was occupied by the Germans.
The two men leave the relative safe confines of the trenches, and in broad daylight, travel through a deserted hellscape, a post-apocalyptic world littered with corpses, tree stumps, shelled-out buildings, dead animals, and a faceless enemy’s booby traps.
The movie’s central conceit is that it’s supposed to look like it was filmed in a single take, a single shot (two, actually). There’s good reason behind this. The idea, I assume, is that this approach will make we the viewers feel like the third man on the mission. And in a few scenes this works, especially a shocking turning point at a deserted farm.
Overall, though, with the camera whopping and swooping, sometimes self-consciously (but nowhere near as self-consciously as that dreadful Oscar-winner Birdman), it feels like we lose something, primarily any sense of intimacy with the characters.
Close-ups were invented for a reason, and when the camera behaves like a voyeur instead of a lover, or the attempt to hold that single tracking shot is so strained you can’t help but notice, it takes you out of the movie. Sometimes in frustration. There’s a scene in a dark basement that lacks the intimacy and longing director Sam Mendes is obviously going for. The potential was all there. It’s poignantly written and performed. Unfortunately, the gimmick keeps us at arm’s length.
Part of the problem might be mine. While I never read reviews before seeing a film, I can’t avoid the hype, and 1917 is a critically-acclaimed frontrunner for Best Picture. For this reason I walked in assuming I was about to see something along the lines of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) or Paths of Glory (1957), two World War I masterpieces you can never quite shake.
Performance-wise and technically, 1917 beats the band. The problem is the lack of an undertow. Beyond War is a terrible and obscene waste of young lives, 1917 doesn’t have much to say. Near the end, by way of Benedict Cumberbatch, who has a small role, this is unnecessarily spoken out loud.
War movies should be about something more than that, even war movies without Oscar aspirations. Saving Private Ryan is about how terrible war is and the importance of a single life. All Quiet is about how terrible war is and the trap set by society to fool young men into believing war means glory. Paths of Glory is about how terrible war is and the corruption of an officer class with unchecked power. Even programmers like Fixed Bayonets (1951) are about how terrible war is and rising to the challenge of leadership.
1917 is about how terrible war is and… and…. and… It’s not even a coming of age story or about overcoming cowardice. You might not notice it, but you sure feel it when characters fail to develop, especially lead characters you never feel connected to because the camera won’t allow for it. You want to experience how this journey changes your protagonist. Does he grow into a man? Does he become hardened and cynical?. All anyone becomes here is dirty, exhausted, and desperate. In that way, more than any other movie, 1917 reminded me of the 1959 Japanese film Fires on the Plain, but that’s still a better movie because it has an undertow, those ideas you can never quite shake.
Don’t get me wrong, 1917 is a good movie. At times, it’s better than good. It’s never pretentious, you’re never bored, and the English military is treated with the respect it deserves. If you’re looking for a couple hours of escape and explosions mixed with moments of tension, you could do a lot worse.
If you’re looking for something to live up to the hype and stick to the ribs, this is not it.