Directed by: Sam Mendes

1917 was the odds-on favorite this year to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, which Parasite, the Korean thriller, of course won. If 1917 had won, though, it would have been for all the wrong reasons. Hollywood loves war pictures (though one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history was the loss of Saving Private Ryan to Shakespeare in Love in 1999), happy endings with tragedies in the middle, quests that are satisfied, and strong British films. This movie has all of those well-worn elements.

Of course, neither not winning, nor being filled with clichés, makes 1917 a bad movie, and it decidedly is not. Two great performances by relative unknowns, outstanding sets, and the cinematography (Roger Deakins justly won the Academy Award for his work on this film) to go along with them, and a powerfully emotional story support this tale of two lieutenants chosen for a dangerous mission across enemy lines to get a letter to British troops about to make a fatal attack into a trap set by the Germans. The quest is made personal by the knowledge that one of the soldiers will be rescuing his older brother, if he succeeds, though both these young men are so attractive as people that the viewer hardly needs any help rooting for them. Simple, enjoyable, yet very different from one another, Dean-Charles Chapman and Charles MacKay play Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield, respectively.

The signature device used by director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) in the movie is to have the camera follow the two men the entire time, as if the film were one, long, continuous hand-held shot. It is not, but it appears that way, and this can be distracting. Mendes—who also wrote the film—does enough with the plot, however, to make the movie proceed at a good pace, mixing events like the collapse of a tunnel and other physical obstacles along the way with contemplative dialogue by the two, as they walk along like two Joes.

1917 is emotionally moving and mostly avoided the kiss of death for melodramas: it never goes over-the-top. The single shot device with its hand-held “jitters” and eye level POV makes audience members feel as if they are really there, and the engagement factor might well have won it an Oscar. Great movies always have a great supporting cast; this movie had two little-knowns in almost every frame, but Mark Strong, Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch in minor, though significant, roles. Not too shabby.

One difficulty with the film is the thin plot, which has a few too many coincidences that are hard to swallow. No German has even the faintest ability to shoot straight as the messengers are shot at repeatedly with none of those shots hitting the target. On the other hand, one of the two heroes is able to pop up and pick off a German sniper on the third shot. At one point, a soldier is floating down river with no idea where he is and gets out at exactly the spot where the troops are for which he is searching. There is no explanation for how one of the two is shot point blank and hit with such force that he falls down a flight of stairs, yet simply wakes up later and is able to go on. But somehow, one is able to put those suspension-of-disbelief problems aside, since one so badly wants the soldiers to succeed in their mission.

The thinness of plot extends to the underlying moral fabric of the characters, too. While there are occasionally interesting conversations between Schofield and Blake, there is so much time spent running for their lives or simply establishing place with long, landscape, camera shots that the characters end up less well-developed than they might have been. There were nice touches like the discussion of cherry trees by Blake, who surprises Schofield with his knowledge and sensitivity, but then, when the cherry-tree image is brought in at the end of the film, it feels clumsy without the depth needed for the empathy of the viewer to be fully engaged.

Of course courage, perseverance, the banality of war, and a number of other moral issues can all be found in 1917 in order to enable discussion, but there are not any issues raised, nor any new thoughts added, that separate this film from almost any war film or buddy picture one could name. This is an impressive movie, but, on the other hand, the script is just so predictable, maudlin, and “familiar” that nothing feels unique. It’s like a pastiche of scenes from a thousand different, very good, war movies, pushing buttons that one knows are going to create emotions in people. It’s a movie I left with tears in my eyes, but not liking the manipulation that made that happen.

Drew Trotter

May 12, 2020

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