Published on January 11th, 2020 | by Craig Silliphant0
1917 is a one shot, real time story about two soldiers who must deliver a message or men will die. But is it a gimmick?
The first thing I’d say about 1917 is wow. Then, how?
1917 is the story of two young British Army soldiers, Blake and Schofield, who are given a mission across the deadly German front to deliver a message to an advancing battalion that is walking into an enemy trap. The lives of 1600 men hang in the balance, one of them Blake’s older brother. It was based in part on a story told to director Sam Mendes by his grandfather, writer Alfred Mendes, who served in WW I.
The unique selling proposition for 1917, which some might call a gimmick, is that just like Hitchcock’s Rope, it’s all meant to look like one extended shot. Photographed by one of the modern masters of cinematography, Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049, No Country for Old Men, Skyfall), the film is a technical masterpiece. The skill with which he’ll do things like run the camera up a hill, peer over, twirl around, always framing the shot perfectly and in focus, is spellbinding. It’s like the amazing tracking shots in Children of Men or Atonement, but even more masterful, and for a whole film.
The camera tracks the two men, sometimes following, sometimes leading them, sometimes exploring on its own; twisting and turning through lush green countryside, through fields that are now more mud and bloated bodies than something recognizable as Earth, through beautiful, but melancholic, burning ruins. There are no wide shots, cutting to medium shots, to close ups. As with Rope, the tension is always palpable. We are with Blake and Schofield as they courier their life-and-death message, as much as we’ve ever been immersed with a character in a film before. How important and amazing this is must be remembered when we tackle what comes next.
I saw the film with some fellow critics and friends* and the group seemed divided at the end. Sure, no one was arguing that it wasn’t one of the most technically thrilling movies of all time. But was that all there was? Was that enough? And as someone suggested, was that camera work actually more distracting than anything?
I did spend time wondering how they achieved certain feats, which I will admit pulled me out of the movie sometimes, but most audience members probably won’t have that technical curiousity. And there have been plenty of movies, from Blade Runner to 2001, that fascinated me in this way. I can understand why a couple of my friends found the nature of the camerawork itself distracting and gimmicky, but I thought it was exciting and served to heighten the storytelling and tension.
We also have to look at the nature of an extremely high concept, straightforward movie like this — run this message in real time across enemy lines. That can hamper the ability of the movie to settle in and tell a human story. You can’t introduce different characters and locations away from the action, develop love interests or deep exposition, all things that can serve to get closer to profound human truths. Some might find 1917 bereft of that kind of storytelling.
But for kind of film it is, it is actually quite brilliantly minimal with its characterization and story. Sure, you don’t get much of a sense of Blake or Schofield beyond the battlefield, but with bombs raining down on your head and enemies trying to stab you at every turn, we get a sense of who they are through being confronted with this conflict. And that is the nature of good drama and storytelling. I can tell you who each of these men are on that day, on that battlefield, and that’s enough for this story. You could perhaps compare 1917 to The Revenant. While I loved The Revenant when I saw it, I haven’t had the urge to go back to it. I found much more to grab hold of in 1917. I already want to see it again.
I can’t dismiss my screening mates’ criticisms of the film; they’re not wrong. And that’s the great thing about having film-loving friends — we can debate this stuff endlessly and challenge each other’s points of view. They challenged mine. It made me bend to see it their way on some points, and in some, it helped cement my own opinion to myself. And while 1917 wasn’t perfect, in addition to the thrilling technical aspects, the film had drama, stakes, characters I believed in and loved for a couple of hours, and a world I was absolutely immersed in.
*Special thanks to Hank Cruise, Mike Fisher, Dean Pasloski, and Terry Wagner for providing fodder for this review.