By Marc S. Sanders
Sam Mendes’ World War I drama 1917 is a cinematic achievement in film artistry. Watching the picture, which I highly recommend in a Dolby theatre, is exhilarating, leaving me to ponder how this type of filmmaking was ever accomplished.
Mendes, along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner) primarily shot the film in one long-real time-take with no breakaway until about two thirds of the film is complete. Then, it resumes into another long take for its final act.
We accompany two British soldiers assigned to trek across the front line into enemy territory and warn a unit of 1600 fellow soldiers that a planned attack has been set up as an ambush against them by the German army.
Mendes is also credited as screenwriter with Krysty Wilson-Cairns and the story and characterizations remain pretty basic. Almost too basic, actually. Because the film is shot in close to real time, 1917 doesn’t allow for much complexity or dimension beyond the now of the mission at hand, and that’s where it suffers slightly. There are moments where we are just walking the countryside and are expected to look at the splendor of war torn Europe. We wind a corner and suddenly we are entering a bunker where a rat hanging from a ceiling enters the frame. We climb a ladder out of a trench, and we immediately come face to face with the aftermath of a violent battle that leaves behind torn up bodies and piles of shell casings.
The achievement with camera work is impossible not to admire and become in awe of it. Eventually, however the novelty wears a little thin. There’s little emotional connection to the two soldiers played by Dean Charles Chapman and George Mackay. Brief appearances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth and Mark Strong are fleeting for but a second.
I was highly impressed with 1917, but I was never moved by the film, even when an emotional confrontation comes up near the end. I never got to know these characters beyond the urgent sojourn they take. So much of the conversations didn’t matter much to me.
Again, this is a master class in filmmaking. Mendes will likely win a directing Oscar because I am dumbfounded with his accomplishment. His steady camera could not have been mounted on a ground track against the rough terrain. So how did he do it?
Oscar recognition must also go to Mendes’ team of 6 art directors. The battlefields are strewn about with corpses, barb wire, deep trenches, underground bunkers, dirt, mud, dust, blood, and so on. War is hell is what we’ve all heard. 1917 brings that mantra to life in sickening, shuddering detail.
I recommend the film while it remains in theaters, but I won’t say it is the best picture of the year because for each great feat of technical work, there’s a lack in the emotional punch that other war films have provided.