The war genre in cinema has lately been relegated to the experimental, or else doomed to feel rote. Like Dunkirk before it, 1917 is more effective as an experiment than as a story. It’s more interesting than impactful, easier to respect than to like. But it’s impossible not to marvel at what director Sam Mendes has accomplished here.
The film, following two young soldiers’ (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) journey to deliver a message to the front lines of World War I, is split into two halves, each with the appearance of being a single long take. There are cuts hidden here and there, but they’re not easy to point out, so the illusion is effectively maintained beginning to end. Even with a few extra cuts, scenes run 10 minutes or longer at a time before there’s even a chance for a cut to be hidden in a passing truck or an explosion that suddenly darkens a room. It makes for an incredibly immersive experience high on tension and emotional thrills. Yet, there’s something hollow about the overall experience.
It sure doesn’t come from Roger Deakins, however, who manages to find the scale and beauty amid this rousing technical achievement. The famed cinematographer doesn’t get to be as colorfully showy here as he was with his lone Oscar-winner Blade Runner 2049, or even Mendes’ own 007 classic, Skyfall, but that does no harm to the aesthetic of 1917, with its war-torn Europe palette of green pastures, gray ruins, and mud-soaked trenches.
It’s his camera that captures the horror of war in a thrillingly, and refreshing, intimate manner, be it as the soldiers escape a collapsing trench or as one evades a sniper in the dead of night, with continuous flairs illuminating his path. The big sequences carry a massive scope, especially with how the sound designers play with what’s just out of frame, but Deakins’ strict focus and Mendes’ ambition ensure the film remains intimate and small until the credits roll. And that’s not to say nothing of Thomas Newman’s rousing score, which subtly aids in building tension throughout.
But for all this refined prowess, there’s still a significant piece missing that keeps 1917 from feeling whole. Immersive as the film is, its technical aspects are just about the only thing that keep it from being redundant. The story is engaging enough, thanks to terrific turns from the two leads, particularly MacKay, who adds layer upon layer of human emotion to a number of scenes. But as he goes through a typical “war is hell” barrage of difficult events, with memorable appearances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard Madden along the way (and Colin Firth and Mark Strong appearing too briefly to make an impact), what Mendes and his co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns want to say about it all doesn’t boil down to much.
Of course, a piece of 1917’s production story is that Mendes wrote the film based on accounts his grandfather relayed to him. As a tribute to him and all the soldiers who bravely fought in the world’s deadliest war, the film strikes an emotional chord, it’s just not much different from the chord past great war films have also struck. The only major addition the movie adds to the genre’s canon is its incredible long takes.
That 1917 works at all is something of a miracle. The sheer amount of planning that must have gone into every take, and then how much had to go right while the cameras were rolling, likely made this production a logistical nightmare. And that’s where Mendes’ talents as a direct shine brightest, as the film runs and engages without a hitch, looking beautiful in the process.
Still, while watching 1917, there’s a sense that you’re waiting for a fresh take or an interesting point that never comes. Audiences don’t need this movie to tell them that war is hell. But for those striving to get closer to experiencing that hell, Deakins and Mendes achieve something few war films before them have. They just needed a grander reason for doing so.
With incredibly immersive visuals, courtesy of the great Roger Deakins, 1917 is a major cinematic achievement on the technical level, even while the script retreads classic war film themes without anything new to say.