1917 tells the story of two young soldiers given a simple but difficult task. A battalion of men are heading into a trap and the only way to contact them is for our two heroes to travel across the no-mans-land of world war one, directly through enemy territory and all the dangers that entail, to hand-deliver a message of warning.
Schofield, the cynic, and Blake, the optimist, are opposites in their disposition and understanding of war. The former, a veteran of battles past, the latter still inexperienced in actual battle. They set off to deliver the message as quickly as possible as Blake’s brother is among the men who will likely die if they don’t accomplish their mission in time.
Filmed to create the illusion that it was completed in a single take, 1917 is in some ways the movie-est movie I’ve seen in a while. In others, it’s the video game-iest. Does it work? Technically, it’s magnificent. In every other way, it’s also pretty good.
There’s no doubt that Roger Deakins is not one of, if not the, greatest living cinematographer. Watching this film I have a hard time believing that anyone else could have helped Sam Mendes pull this feat off so beautifully. Deakins has a particular knack for lighting which is on display in full force here, shots of soldiers in front of a burning church or a hero running through ruins as flares are fired overhead are breathtaking to behold.
For all it’s beauty though, the film lacks emotionality. That’s not to say that the actors aren’t doing good work, they both are, but there’s a strange sort of rote feeling about the whole thing. While they are traversing danger after danger there’s no real connection to what’s going on, and the plot very much feels like that of a video game: the characters go to a place, meet a character played by a famed actor who will deliver a reprieve from the tension and some exposition, then repeat.
That’s not meant to be disparaging of video games, I like video games, but I also like to interact with video games.
So while it’s an amazing technical feat –and most definitely a movie you should see for that reason– 1917 lacks the emotional resonance that would make it a truly great film. Strange, given the setup for the story and the dedication at the end, as it should be almost overflowing in that regard. Instead, it’s just technically amazing.