Updated: Feb 9, 2020
It is difficult to write about 1917 without discussing its style. It is a WWI movie following two British soldiers as they make their way across dangerous territory to deliver an important message that could save many lives. As I always say, a movie is not about its story; it is about how it tells it. It tells it using what appears to be a single shot (in reality, it is a bunch of seven-to-eight-minute shots edited together convincingly to look like one). This approach keeps us in the tense headspace of the characters, increasing our anxiety by giving us nowhere else to go. It is appropriately suspenseful. However, the incredibly skillful camera work is also constantly calling attention to itself. It is a gimmick that is somehow successful and distracting in equal measure. Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have crafted an impressive production that too often seems like it is showing off. They did it because they could, not because it was necessary for this specific story. It is still enthralling at times, though I may have appreciated it more if it did not try so hard to be amazing.
As it begins, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield are given an order by their General: they must take a message to a Colonel who is planning to launch an attack on the German army. While the Colonel believes the Germans are on their heels, new intel confirms it is a trap. Many soldiers, including Blake’s brother, will be charging into an ambush if they fail to bring the message in time. The rest of the story concerns the obstacles the two men have to overcome to complete their mission.
There are definitely some advantages to what Mendes chose to do here. These men know nothing except for what they can see. They have no context, no extra information. They will not know what they are walking into until they get there. Since there is no cutting back and forth, we also know nothing except for what they see. This works tremendously in scenes where they walk through a large trench, explore a bunker or have a shootout with a German soldier. It was like I was with them, barely breathing, hoping they could get out. In those stretches, the camera is only watching. Usually trailing them, sometimes getting past them before turning to find them again. In those sequences, the gimmick is very effective. I was not thinking about it. I was just there with Blake and Schofield, wanting them to survive so they could get to the Colonel before it was too late.
It is in the quieter parts where the gimmick is noticeable. When the camera swings around them as they walk and talk. That is when Mendes and Deakins seem to be saying “look what we can do!” That is when I saw it the most, but it does occur during a few of the action scenes. A big camera movement existing merely so they can have done it. They avoided obvious cuts to keep viewers in the moment, yet there were several instances where the way they did it took me out of the moment. It is a double-edged sword: when it works, it is captivating; when it does not, it actively takes away from their intent.
The story is a simple quest. The characters are similarly simple. The runtime seems to be the amount of time the story takes (110 minutes, without the end credits), so we learn only what we have to about these men. Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman) attempts to stay upbeat, joking through the horror. The news that his brother’s life may be in his hands focuses him. Schofield (played by George MacKay) is loyal and brave. He has already been damaged by the war and tries not to think about the probability he will not see home again. Both actors are sympathetic as stereotypical young WWI soldiers. We do not need more information to understand what is happening. They were chosen because they are expendable. Now they are risking their lives to make up for the mistakes of a higher-ranking officer. Chapman and MacKay do a good enough job carrying the emotional elements, helped enormously by small roles from talented actors such as Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Richard Madden. They all paint a picture of this experience in one strong scene each.
1917 has received a lot of nominations from various groups, winning the Golden Globe for Best Drama and Best Director. It is one of the most likely choices to get a Best Picture Oscar nomination when those are announced on January 13th. I enjoyed it, but it would not make my top ten of 2019. Still, I understand the praise. This is quite the technical achievement. Unfortunately, that achievement got in the way a little too much for me. Regardless, it is very good; exciting, sad and occasionally illuminating. It is certainly one of the most notable movies of the year.
3¾ out of 5
George MacKay as Lance Corporal Schofield
Dean-Charles Chapman as Lance Corporal Blake
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns