Sam Mendes’ 1917 flourishes when the audience is captivated by the spectacle of sound and vision before them, but upon closer inspection, the film lacks depth and originality.
The film follows the journey of two young men to deliver a message which could save sixteen-hundred men from a doomed attack against the Germans. The leads, George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman carry the film well, and are greatly complemented by the supporting cast (Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch). The set pieces in this film are often awesome, and always memorable. The very best of these settings act as external manifestations of the characters’ fears, internal struggles and nostalgias. One of the more exhilarating scenes follows George Mackay’s character sprinting through a bombed village, with only flares and a burning church illuminating the shots. These scenes are visually compelling and when combined with the swelling, triumphant score, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed in the grandiosity of the event.
Much like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, the Oscar buzz and the selling point of this film is its use of the continuous take. However, the one-shot here doesn’t relate so much to ideas of the film but rather serves to immerse the viewer; and in this respect, it fails. Most of the transitions are pretty seamless (unless you’re like me and looking out for them), but some of the CGI, especially during a waterfall sequence becomes quickly distracting. The continuous take doesn’t seem necessary to the storytelling of the film, instead, it’s a cheap gimmick that works to the detriment of the cinematography. Roger Deakins, the film’s cinematographer, seems like he is working with one hand tied behind his back. The constant circling around characters is novel at first, but it becomes a crutch to create artificial excitement, revealing the filmmakers’ lack of confidence in what is in the frame.
The film is at its most thematically compelling when it addresses the ideas of vainglory by leaders of men, and that “some men just want the fight”. This theme is barely touched upon but is definitely the most interesting part of the film, and creates strong scenes of suspense, especially at the final confrontation. Will the efforts and sacrifices of the soldiers be futile because of the arrogance and bloodlust of those few in power? How can these leaders be held responsible for their decisions? These ideas, however, are mostly placed firmly in the background, and Mendes seems to lean on the cliched motifs and platitudes of solidarity, perseverance, and outdated nationalistic pride. The portrayal of the German soldiers in this film is so basic it is almost laughable, and the director describes the heroism of the characters rather than intelligently exploring what it is that makes people to strive toward these actions. What is the point of telling this specific story? This is the key area in which the film falls flat, and upon re-watch, it becomes relatively boring.
Perhaps if there wasn’t such a large canon of war films that preceded 1917, I would look at this movie more favourably, alas, in 2020 there is an overabundance, and 1917 just doesn’t do enough new things to justify its own existence. Mendes’ own previous war film ‘Jarhead’ explored more interesting and original issues about isolation and alienation as the enemy. 1917 could be seen as one of the greatest war movies of all time if it were made 70 years ago, back when such simplistic depictions of war could be overlooked, but it is 2020, and World War I was much more complex and ethically questionable than Mendes’ film makes it out to be. The film itself has a great number of positives, but it seems that the sum of its parts don’t quite add up to a whole.