Thursday, January 16, 2020

Movie Review: 1917

1917 **** / *****
Directed by: Sam Mendes.
Written by: Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns.
Starring: George MacKay (Lance Corporal Schofield), Dean-Charles Chapman (Lance Corporal Blake), Daniel Mays (Sergeant Sanders), Colin Firth (General Erinmore), Andrew Scott (Lieutenant Leslie), Mark Strong (Captain Smith), Claire Duburcq (Lauri), Benedict Cumberbatch (MacKenzie), Richard Madden (Lieutenant Blake). 
Sam Mendes’ 1917 is primarily a technical achievement – and one that really cannot be denied. It is the latest film to try and fake its style as a single long shot stretched over its entire runtime (not quite, it cheats in the middle when the main character is knocked out cold for who knows how long, but how long should the camera of stayed trained on an unconscious man?). This isn’t a new idea – Birdman did it just a few years ago, Hitchcock did it in Rope in 1948, and Aleksandr Sokurov actually did all of Russian Ark in one take, no faking. Hell, 2019 also offered Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which featured a 58-minute single shot, in 3-D for added difficulty. Still, what Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins accomplish in 1917 is quite impressive – and they’ve picked the right story and setting to make their strategy work, and seem (at least slightly) less of a gimmick. There are drawbacks to this technique of course – the main ones being it doesn’t allow for as much character work, or even story beyond the propulsive nature of the mission, to make much of an impact. You’re dazzled by 1917 as you watch it, but after you may be at a loss to explain the larger messages of the film – or whether it even has them.
As the title implies, the film takes place in 1917, during WWI, and focuses on two British soldiers, given a perilous, and perhaps suicidal, mission. They have to make it to the front, and tell MacKenize to call off his planned attack at dawn the next morning – it’s a trap the Germans have set, and will lead to a massacre if it’s carried out. For added stakes, one of the men assigned – Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) has a brother among the men who will be killed. It’s just Schofield’s dumb luck that he was next to Blake when the assignment came in, and was forced to go along for the ride.
The faked single long tracking shot is especially effective in the early going, when Blake and Schofield have to walk through their own trenches, filled with men – bloodied and bruised, exhausted from fighting the Germans for every single inch of no man’s land. The trenches make an ideal place for long tracking shot – Kubrick knew this in Paths of Glory – and they make the most of it. It also works remarkably well when the pair start having to cross no man’s land – they’ve been told the Germans have abandoned it, but you never be sure. As they make their way across the muck, they stumble over barb wire, and dead bodies that cannot be retrieved. The scale of the lives lost becomes clearer.
As the film moves along, the technical achievement doesn’t waver. There is a mesmerizing shot late in the film where of the men runs towards the camera, while other run perpendicular to him, and bombs go off, and he has to stay on his feet. It is a brilliantly executed shot. It is also, unfortunately, one of the times that happen increasingly in the movie that seem completely implausible. As the film moves along, it feels like Mendes feels he has to keep upping the ante, upping the danger, and while all the scenes are exciting, they don’t exactly feel plausible, and it makes the already thin story and characters feel all the thinner.
I will say that the two leads – George McKay in particular – do more in their roles than you may think, given that so much of the film is running, jumping, shooting, dodging, ducking, etc. The film is at least partly about the horror of war – and how all you can do is try and survive it.
1917 works amazingly well when you watch. What Mendes has done, with Deakins, is worthy of praise – and the other design elements are as well. In particular, Thomas Newman’s score is one of his best, and does a lot of emotional heavy lifting, as well as to heighten the suspense and excitement. And yet, it was never a film where I forgot about the technique being used – where I never stopped looking for the cuts for instance (some are easy to spot, some nearly impossible). It is an amazing technical accomplishment, and a very good film. A great film would make you forget just how amazing a technical accomplishment it was.

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