By Andrew Rodden
Even in this heavily competitive awards season, Sam Mendes’ 2019 film “1917” has received special attention. It has reeled in two Golden Globe wins (Best Director and Best Drama) and an impressive 10 Academy Award nominations, including a nomination for the prized Best Picture category.
While these awards may not be as important as the voting bodies would like you to think, they do carry a massive sway in a movie’s cultural significance, for better or for worse.
“1917” is generating buzz for good reasons. It is complete with astonishing cinematography from Roger Deakins, mesmerizing sound mixing, as well as gritty set and costume design. These technical elements all complement the film’s realism, but at what cost?
Set against the backdrop (and inside the trenches) of World War I, “1917” follows Lance Corporals Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). The two are tasked with delivering a message to call off an attack on German forces that would result in hundreds of British casualties, including Blake’s own brother (Richard Madden).
Sent by General Erinmore (Colin Firth), the two soldiers must traverse the Western Front, facing dangerous obstacles as well as their own fear and doubt.
“1917” is a film about the toll of war. It does its best to interrogate the WWI-era shift in the way war was fought (when values of honor and valor were abandoned in favor of survivalist values and aggressive militarism).
I fear that flashy realism muddled the film’s underlying message, sacrificing meaning for spectacle. The single-shot presentation (several cuts were hidden throughout, meaning it wasn’t really a single take) lessened the impact of the intense action scenes.
I will avoid labeling the film’s single shot appearance as a hollow gimmick — it was genuinely impressive — but I do question its legitimacy as a storytelling tool for this particular story.
An action-packed movie like “1917” needs the relief of traditional editing to make the intensity fit within the context of the world. The set pieces in the film stood out unnaturally when compared to the moments in which characters mosey along their journey to the next scene of action.
These filler moments were much akin to campaigns in the video game series “Call of Duty,” in which players are subjected to verbal exposition in order to fill in the gap between action packed missions.
Perhaps the clunky story structure was also to blame, but the pacing of “1917” was severely compromised by Mendes’ desire to convey realism. Ironically, this instead diminished the believability of the high octane set pieces.
Moreover, too much of the movie’s thematic content was left for the audience to determine. “1917” presents itself as an anti-war film, but I am not sure whether it condemns war itself or just the type of war fought in WWI — a war without honor.
I do think that the movie attempts to break the mythos of an “honorable” war, primarily with the mission intended to divert Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) from initiating an attack. However, since there is not enough evidence to support this theme, too much is left to the audience’s imagination. I believe that the movie would be leagues stronger if it further developed this thematic thread.
Does “1917” deserve the hype it has received? Kind of. It is effective in displaying the horrors of war in a spectacular way, even though its ultimate message struggles to come to the surface.
“1917” may not have been the best movie of 2019, but it certainly was not the worst, not even among the movies nominated for the Best Picture award. Save your Friday night for something else, but “1917” is a perfect watch for a Sunday afternoon.