1917 Review: Technically a Masterpiece

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BY January 10, 2020

Whenever I talk about World War I, I usually refer to it as a “meat grinder.” While not as deadly as its sequel, WWI still killed at least 17 million men (not to mention civilians). Because they had better artillery, but not so great transportation yet, WWI soldiers largely relied on trench warfare. Essentially, they dug massive holes in the ground. Then they often turned them into graves. This is the world in which we find our main characters in 1917, a film which has received acclaim even before its wide release. Did it deserve it, though? Let’s talk about it in our review of 1917.

A Riot on the Western Front

1917 Review image via Universal Pictures

If you’ve seen the trailers, then you know the story. In the thick of WWI, a British general, Erinmore (Colin Firth), chooses Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) to deliver a message to another battalion. The message? They’re walking into a trap. A purported German retreat is actually a purposeful gathering. The Brits are heading out of the trenches, expecting to catch a small contingent of Germans while they’re on the run. Instead, they’re walking straight into a German meat grinder.

The top brass wants Blake for the job, because his brother Joe is a lieutenant with the battalion in question. (So presumably, Blake is highly motivated to get there on time.) They give Blake leeway to select someone else to accompany him, and he chooses William Schofield (George MacKay). Then it’s a race to reach the other men in time. Fail, and 1600 men die.

1917 Is Getting a Lot of Attention

1917 Review image via Universal Pictures

Just this week, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association awarded 1917 Best Motion Picture – Drama at the Golden Globes. This probably came as a surprise to many folks, since the movie wasn’t even playing nationwide yet. But once you hear the hook–that the movie is written and filmed like it’s all one shot–then you understand the hype.

And in review, 1917 generally works well. From the start, the movie feels claustrophobic and chaotic, much like trench warfare in WWI. In addition, legendary cinematographer/thirst trap Roger Deakins hits it out of the park as usual. Although seemingly constrained (by the one-shot format), Deakins instead finds surprising ways to follow the characters. His camera follows Blake and Schofield through a rabbit warren of trenches, but it also separates from them, inching around corners like an enemy soldier to catch them off guard.

Above all else, this film is a technical achievement. Along with the camera work, the set pieces are ambitious and impressive. We feel like we’re right there with them, in the muck and the horror, surrounded by the stench of death. This feeling is only aided by MacKay, whose highly expressive face communicates multiple emotions at once. Schofield is a veteran of the brutal Battle of the Somme, so he knows how bad war can get. And that it can always get worse.

1917 in Review: The Weakest Points

1917 review image via Universal Pictures

MacKay’s expressiveness is a very good thing, by the way, because he doesn’t have a wealth of dialogue with which to communicate. That in itself is not necessarily a drawback. However, it is a symptom of the movie’s biggest issue: the story is awfully slight. In telling, it might remind you more than a little of Saving Private Ryan, also a technically impressive war film about a group of soldiers desperate to find another group. In practice, though, it’s markedly different. Throughout Ryan, for instance, we got to know those soldiers and we understood them to an extent. Personal information in 1917 is parceled out sparingly, though–so sparingly, that some of the emotional beats just don’t hit as hard as they could.

And the pace doesn’t help. The first half of the movie is paced well, but in the second half, it plays like one of those beat-the-clock action movies. Along with the intimate camera work, it can be exhausting. If we had more of an emotional tie to the goings-on on screen, then it wouldn’t be as noticeable. But it is, and it’s exactly the thing we shouldn’t be noticing. We should be drawn into the personal story–director Sam Mendes loosely based the movie on his grandfather Alfred’s wartime experiences–but instead, we’re watching all the smoke and mirrors. It’s sound and fury that could signify so much more.

featured image via Universal Pictures

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Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

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