I’m really struggling with 1917. I don’t even have an idea for a prologue to the review. That’s how blank the film is to me. I’m reminded of Bradley Cooper’s take on A Star Is Born last year, which I found to be a perfectly down-the-middle movie. They’ve got simple ideas, they’re competently-executed, and they go down pretty easy. And in both cases, I’m left feeling nothing. And that’s the one thing I truly want from a movie. Even if what I’m watching is bad, I want to be able to engage on some level. But some movies, no matter how well-made they are, just don’t land.
While I often struggle with the morally or politically confused stylings of Sam Mendes, 1917 is far too minimalist in narrative to find provocative, much less disagreeable. Driven by the freshman screenplay effort of Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and perhaps the most dedicated work of Mendes’s career, 1917 follows two young soldiers fighting through the end of World War I, as they’re tasked with a dangerous mission that will save hundreds of lives. A simple premise buoyed by virtuosity and a done-in-one-take gimmick that remains largely gripping and thrilling, but demands to be reined in for a little more soul.
1917 is thread-bare. Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is asked to deliver a message to a battalion of soldiers, including his lieutenant brother Joseph (Richard Madden). Tom takes his pal and fellow LC William Schofield (George McKay), not totally realizing what they’re getting into. The two soldiers cross through No Man’s Land, braving one obstacle after another. This is maybe what the film does best, sending our two protagonists through challenges that are small enough to feel real, but significant enough to imbue tension. Sometimes that means crossing barbed wire, sometimes that means pushing a tire out of the mud, and sometimes that means
And that’s the film, taking place in TWO continuous shots. 1917 is being sold on a single unbroken take. Ignoring trick edits, the film does objectively cut after the halfway point. But aside from that quibble, 1917 is a spectacle, reveling in the horror of war, sometimes with a splash of dark humor, but Mendes never lets us mistake war for anything other than a vicious, irreconcilable trial of desperation. No doubt, the trenches and rolling fields of the north of France where the film takes place resemble a desolate hellscape resting on what were once gorgeously sprawling hills and forests. Not enough credit can be given to production designers Dennis Gassner and Lee Sandales, whose art direction is always striking to look at, even when we feel the same claustrophobia and sense of impending danger as the characters.
Oddly, the flashiest element of 1917 is perhaps the aspect that gets in the film’s own way, which is Roger Deakins’s cinematography. This is not to say that 1917 looks bad, because Deakins could never seriously shoot an ugly looking picture–and given his penchant for working with the greatest DPs ever, neither could Sam Mendes. But where Deakins and Mendes falter is how little face time we get with the characters for long stretches. They’d rather bury them in the ugliness of their surroundings, bludgeoning us with just how terrifying war is, which is numbing. And that almost works, but that banality can defuse tension, rather than contrast some of the more shocking moments. Most of all, this distances us from our two main characters.
Much of the flat characterization is a failure of the script. Blake and Schofield are frustratingly blank. One could make the argument that we’re supposed to be able to slip right into their shoes and identify with them as is. But there’s nothing remotely discernible about them outside of them having families. In fact, the trumped-up cameos from Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden have far more personality and depth in the few minutes each is given than either McKay or Chapman have. McKay and Chapman aren’t bad; the actors they’re playing off of are simply pros that know how to elevate bit parts. Their histories and personalities are clear as day, whereas our leads are vague and impossible to connect with, which is a failure of direction.
Sam Mendes bases 1917 off of stories told to him by his grandfather Alfred Mendes, who was also a Lance Corporal during World War I. This film clearly means a lot to him. But he puts practically all of his eggs in recreating the battlefield of perhaps the most pointlessly bloody war of the modern era. And without a doubt, 1917 is as exhilarating as thrillers can get–particularly a flame-lit stealth sequence whose look is a perfectly-calibrated synthesis of the climaxes to Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan. As a feat of bravura filmmaking, even when running contrary to the picture’s own effectiveness, 1917 is impressive. But the film doesn’t amount to much more of than an elliptical magic trick.
And I suppose that’s what keeps me from embracing 1917 beyond the film being a technical marvel. For a story that seems to be about the inhumanity of war, drawing from the memories of someone close to the film’s author, 1917 is frighteningly anonymous and impersonal. There’s nothing to be found within Schofield or Chapman. There’s nothing to be said about World War I. There’s nothing to be said about military combat that hasn’t been said a hundred times. And all of that could be forgiven if Mendes actually had something to say, or didn’t take such a clinical approach to a story that should be anything but. Instead, we’re left with a nifty, muted exercise that’s fun now, but serves to be forgotten.