1917 is a spectacular World War I film from Sam Mendes. The British writer-director was at the helm of American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and Skyfall. His elegant films have substance, style and are always worth considering come award season. While he hasn’t been able to repeat his great run with American Beauty yet, it seems that 1917 is just the ticket. Following in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman, which were both revolutionary in their own right, he’s constructed the wandering war epic, 1917.
Following two soldiers on an impossible mission to deliver a message to rescue the lives of 1,600 men, we journey across a battle-scarred France. It’s a sprawling film that seems to be a step in the direction of what could inevitably be possible with 3D narratives for gaming and film. The area seems to go off for kilometres in every direction as the camera cleverly and smoothly moves from one composition to the next under the instruction of Roger Deakins. A remarkable achievement, the single shot simulation is stitched together masterfully, making it seem as if no editing was involved.
While this stylistic construct is at play and the main focus, Mendes covers an inspiring and gut-busting story of valour and sacrifice. Using the idea of a soldier simply being plucked at random and cast into enemy territory on a do-or-die mission, the role is something of a conduit. While Sam Worthington has been cast for similar reasons in other films, the job befalls the dependable George MacKay, a British actor known for his strong supporting role under Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic.
The primary focus is the cinematography in this technical masterpiece as Deakins and Mendes weave magic together. Dunkirk took the visceral war experience to the extreme, bypassing a traditional screenplay to convey the terror of war in a film that employed an everyone-pitches-in ensemble. Destroying the notion of ego, it was a powerful war film about a day rather than a hero. Mendes takes a page, telling the story from an arm’s length and allowing the camera to do most of the storytelling.
While MacKay adds nuance, there’s a feeling of relative anonymity to the character. Perhaps Mendes was playing at the soldier’s duty, the everyman quality to the act of simply being chosen to be a hero. While this British sentiment is fitting for the scenario, it’s problematic in terms of drawing an audience into the story. We can appreciate the unexpected hero’s role, his determination to honour his country and his plodding resilience in an uncertain and dangerous predicament.
While the filmmakers do add some minutia, it doesn’t feel as though there are enough contact points to truly win us over. Journeying with MacKay, you are rooting for and admiring the tireless soldier’s efforts, yet feeling disconnected. The character does grow over the course of the film as he solemnly accepts his fate and his sacrifice is powerful, yet seems about as distant as a news story.
Failing to fully identify with the lead, we’re swathed in the beauty of the visuals and visceral impact of the audio. This keeps our attention, but with little dialogue to drive our understanding or limited back story, it’s a little numb at its core. This criticism is in no way a dismantling of 1917, which still remains a breathtaking and effective war drama. It’s more of a comment on how they could have leveraged more emotional power and empathy for a full-bodied immersion. In its current state, it’s better than the kind of characterisation you’d get from a video game, but not quite rich enough to reach its full potential as a drama.