There isn’t much to say about Sam Mendes’ 1917 anymore, is there? The presumptive front-runner for several Academy Awards walked away with technical trophies and nothing more, having lost to the far superior but more politically charged Parasite. Local critics in our group were able to pinpoint the number of nominations 1917 would receive. We all thought it wouldn’t go the distance. Only about half of our 20-person crew wanted it to while the other half dreaded it. The truth is that 1917 is divisive in the context of awards season and critical talk but, upon reviewing it at home, not really worth the feelings either way.
Roger Deakin’s cinematography is, as always, pretty great here — notwithstanding the sequences with obvious and burdensome computer-generated imagery, a necessity to uphold the “one-take” shtick. It’s certainly a technical achievement. There are sequences that simply look spectacular.
However, the dramatic portions are under-developed. Mendes assumes the weight of the situations presented make up for the lack of depth. One-take movies have to overcome different storytelling challenges from traditionally edited pictures. Beyond the inherently showy nature of the trick is the fact that they’re speaking an entirely different language than a film that can cut between different images, sequences and moments to create an emotional through-line. This is a problem in 1917 on two fronts.
When all is said and done, 1917 tells the tale of a man trapped on the frontlines of a mismanaged conflict away from his family who makes a dangerous journey to try and save someone else’s family. The exposition is back-loaded to create an emotional realization at the end of the movie that, frankly, in any other film would’ve been basic exposition at the top. This is particularly problematic because Will (George MacKay) is our perspective character, and Mendes isn’t nearly brave enough to tell a one-take story that truly shifts perspective midway through. Would it be cheating to do that? I’m not sure, but the movie cheats multiple times to maintain its schtick, so why not? All of this means Will is a total cipher for the entire story up until the end when he’s given blunt characterization that doesn’t add much gravity to the preceding events because it’s such a basic moment that you could simply assume something like that was in his backstory. The music (a substandard Zimmer-riff by Thomas Newman) swells to reveal … nothing.
Comparisons can be made to Christopher Nolan’s similarly tricky Dunkirk, which also told an oft-recalled episode of wartime derring-do in an unconventional way. The two are, in many ways, exact opposites: 1917 sheds every ounce of possible convolution to tell a tale with mind-numbing simplicity while Dunkirk mercilessly hammed it up in classic Nolan style by combining three storylines within the same story told non-chronologically and simultaneously. I much prefer Nolan’s style, a film with vision to spare that tried to capture scope and scale in a new way. 1917 wants to scale World War I down to the singular experience of one soldier but doesn’t bother making that character a person.
It is, however, gorgeous to look at.