1917 comes to the silver screen to provide viewers with a “day in the life” of two young British Corporals fighting in World War I. 1917 is a single shot epic that starts off seemingly peacefully as two young soldiers are napping in a field and escalates to detail the intricacies and severity of war when Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his chosen companion Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are sent on a rescue mission. Their mission: to journey through enemy territory to find Blake’s Lieutenant brother (Richard Madden) and save his company from staging an attack on “retreating” German soldiers who, according to new intelligence, have planned an ambush that would lead to 1,600 British lives lost.
With expectations set both by director Sam Mendes’ filmography and 2017’s World War II epic Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan, which was arguably the most enthralling war film of the decade; 1917 was left slightly wasted on me despite its masterful cinematography. To be quite honest I find myself struggling to gather my thoughts because the film was both beautiful and harrowing, but somehow disappointing – and I fail to put my finger on exactly why that is. If there is one thing that 1917 executed perfectly in the form of its intended plot, it is the horrors and hideousness of war. In a time where political tensions run high around the globe, it is a stark reminder of the risk that soldiers take when they are sent to fight for their country.
This film is truly a journey through hell on earth, graphically detailing the destruction brought to France during World War I. Sadly, Chapman and MacKay’s beautifully acted display of bravery, determination, defeat, fear, and valor was lost in the story. The honesty of the horrors of World War I are deeply unsettling, as the audience is provided with the image of corpses littering battlefields and abandoned trenches, towns obliterated by gunfire and explosions, and young soldiers fighting for their own survival. Despite the discomfort provided by these harrowing images and the tension raised as the main characters are left fending for themselves in a valiant mission to save hundreds, this movie is more so accomplished in its ability to tell a story rather than the story itself. The film’s main characters are left running throughout the film; when they are not directly under fire the only lulls in the film are meant to set up the next tragedy that these men must face, resulting in a thrilling journey that leaves audiences at the edge of their seats. My only complaint – there is not a lasting connection to the characters to be experienced past the end credits.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins completed this film in a single shot format, allowing the actors only a single take per scene in many cases, resulting in many blunders of the filming process to remain evident within the film, which often served to make the scenes feel more realistic. A film clearly deserving of its Golden Globes for Best Director and Best Motion Picture – Drama, 1917 is sure to rack up Oscar nominations this Monday morning. Despite all of this, 1917 is not the audience’s film, but a testament to the beauty of creative filmmaking to the extent that it robs a beautiful and inspiring tale of the attention that it deserves.
The single shot technique creates a voyeuristic experience for the audience; throwing them in the midst of the action, yet never allowing the viewer to get close enough to the action to feel as though they are actually experiencing it. While the film was anxiety inducing and high paced, it left little room for the audience to become interested in the characters at more than surface level – lowering the stakes only enough that I wanted them to succeed in their mission, but not to the extent that it left a lasting impression. Critics have formerly referred to the single shot technique as a “videogame storyline,” leaving the viewer to watch something happen, but never allowing them to connect enough to feel that there are any lasting consequences to the result of the film.
While I certainly enjoyed watching 1917 and left the theater with so much more respect for the men who quite literally gave everything they had to a fight they did not ask to be a part of, my grand expectations entering the theater left me underwhelmed. The intricacies in the way the picture was filmed took away from the story to the extent that I found 1917 to be a display of both Mendes’ and Deakins’ ability to be filmmakers rather than story tellers. Overall, I expect 1917 to perform well this awards season, and I highly recommend a trip to the theater to see this film on the biggest screen you can find… and Dunkirk is always deserving of a revisit while you’re at it.