By now, you’ve probably heard all about Golden Globe winner 1917 as “that war movie they did in one take.” Save one cut, this is true in regard to the presentation — if not the traditional illusory tricks to realize it — of this story about two British Lance Corporals racing to stop fellow soldiers from walking into a German ambush on French fields during World War I. Regardless of quality, 1917 is also the sort of thing that comes prepackaged with eight Oscar nominations — nine if the score impresses and 10 if the costumes are good.
Some filmmakers might bristle at such reductive descriptions about their movie, insisting there are idiosyncrasies that truly define their project beyond mere eye-catching visual schemes or attention-grabbing awards plays. Sadly, 1917 illustrates that showmanship and spotlights are all that’s on the mind of director / co-writer Sam Mendes — who took screenwriting inspiration from his grandfather’s stories about WWI but seems creatively motivated by somehow trying to one-up Christopher Nolan’s own war movie.
Thanks to cinematography by compositional GOAT Roger Deakins and seamless editing from Lee Smith (Nolan’s right hand from Batman Begins to Dunkirk), 1917 can’t help but look great. It’s just not a great look, with one-take onanism that’s too antiseptic to antagonize you, too clinical to compel and too taken by its own technical orchestrations to strike any emotional notes. Speaking of music: A bombastic score by 14-time Oscar nominee Thomas Newman fits the film surrounding it. You can almost see Newman stabbing his baton with big, “Bald Mountain” gestures and an open palm rising for more, more, MORE BRASS. Naturally, this is the one most likely to win him an Oscar.
If anything persuasive comes from the parlor tricks of 1917, it’s during the prologue, as Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) descend from a restful, pastoral tranquility into roiling purgatorial trenches to receive their orders from General Erinmore (Colin Firth). Telephone lines have been cut, so they must hand-deliver Erinmore’s message advising Colonel Mackenzie and his battalion of 1,600 Brits — Blake’s brother among them — to not fall for the Germans’ ruse of a sudden retreat. No spoilers on who plays Colonel Mackenzie here. But just imagine Ted Danson’s cameo from Saving Private Ryan every 10 minutes — only with accents and caution to not duplicate anyone from Dunkirk — and you’re well on your way to guessing who might show up in 1917’s “Night of 1,000 Stars” approach to filling the roles of authority figures.
Meanwhile, Blake is chubby and cheery while Schofield is athletic and ashen. It’s the traditional dichotomy of two-player avatars, ported here to a side-scroller of misery as unrelenting as it is unmoving. What we know, or come to learn, about either man is purely incidental to Mendes and company’s efforts to maintain clean lines of efficiency on their conveyor belt of carnage.
Deakins’ camera soars through a swarm of computer-generated flies around a horse’s rotting carcass and tracks Schofield’s hand as he inadvertently sinks it into a corpse’s chest cavity. When Schofield and Blake stumble upon a stunningly complex underground barracks, you almost expect a HUD that says “Press B to kick the fire can or X to pass it up.” Nearly all of the action is contingent on Blake and Schofield standing around and waiting for enemy soldiers to lunge, shoot and / or fly a plane directly at them.
“Do you know where we are?” one asks. Keeping with the film’s Grand Theft Auto: Écoust-Saint-Mein aesthetic, you can guess which rock-song retort will roll through your mind. Indeed, the only tense moment is undone by a shoddy visual effect that wouldn’t have passed muster as a PS2 cut-scene.
During the few moments in which 1917 lets up on the button-mashing to press pause for faint, trite reflection, Mendes swings to extremes of chaos or contemplation. In one moment, several hundred soldiers sit silent and stone-faced while one of them balladeers for fallen comrades. In another, we see a gruesome montage of bloody, blown-off stumps. These moments have neither anything new to say nor notable to remind us about the inherent rottenness of war. They are merely boxes to check that serve the pretty-then-gritty expectations of the war genre before Mendes and company set up their next greenscreen overdose. Indeed, razzle-dazzle is the only raison d’etre for 1917 — a war film with as many dimensions as noticeable cuts.