Review: ‘1917’ is visually stimulating but lacks effective screenplay

by Willem Gerrish | 1/17/20 2:00am

Thanks to surprise wins for Best Director and Best Motion Picture — Drama at the Golden Globes, Sam Mendes’ bold cinematic experience “1917” has been a buzzy film, garnering a spike in attention it hopes to carry into the Oscars in February. Set during World War I and focusing on two British soldiers in the trenches of France, “1917” is shot and edited to look like one take. This is much like Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s masterful 2015 Oscar winner for Best Motion Picture of the Year, “Birdman.” Unlike “Birdman,” though, “1917,” lacks a scintillating script or multifaceted characters, but it makes up for some of that loss with the sheer grandeur of its cinematic vision.

Mendes, already a brilliant director in his own right, enlists the help of the legendary Roger Deakins as his director of photography — and the two of them treat “1917” as a sandbox for astounding visual gymnastics. Liquid and engrossing, the camerawork is certainly a magnetic factor for the film. In one instance, the cameras show viewers a character floating down a river and over a waterfall, and in another, Deakins tracks a frantic escape through a shattered French town lit only by overhead flares. 

The effect is a film that pulls you into its grasp and doesn’t relent until the final credits roll — feeling like it unfolds in real time, even though a few sly tricks move time forward while you’re focused on other details. I can now say that I retrospectively approve of Mendes’ Best Director Golden Globe, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him repeat at the Oscars, hopefully with the appropriate credit for Deakins in the cinematography category as well.

A film is made up of more than its visual elements, though, and this is where “1917” begins to drop in quality. The plot is good enough: The British army enlists a soldier, Blake, and his friend, Schofield, to deliver an overnight message that will stop a British attack from walking into a German trap. Upper command chooses Blake because of a vested interest in the matter — his brother is one of the soldiers who is about to charge out of the trench and into certain death and they know Blake will undertake this mission for the sake of family. Schofield is the unlucky partner of choice, and he initially resents Blake for dragging him along on what could very well be a suicide mission. 

Inevitable bonding ensues, of course, but much of it falls flat. Drawing out human depth in characters embroiled in combat is often a challenge in war films, but it’s been done well in the past, most notably in Steven Spielberg’s landmark “Saving Private Ryan.” 

“1917” has a twofold problem of an inferior script — Mendes’ writing has never been a selling point — and an inherent focus on action. The movie is very much a film about motion, which forces any sort of character development into the realm of an afterthought. You could make the argument that well-crafted characters and writing aren’t the point of a movie like “1917,” and that’s certainly true, but it doesn’t make it a better movie, per se — just a movie that lived up to its own ambitions.

I also have a bone to pick with the whole one-shot gimmick, as much as I love the concept and the fact that its execution is near-impeccable in “1917.” The problem is that “1917” would be a better movie, at least in a classical sense, without the narrative limitations of a single shot. The one-shot idea creates the necessity for down moments, as life that unfolds in real time doesn’t jump from scene to scene but follows natural lulls between excitement. 

The way to make up for the problem is with invigorating dialogue — I’m thinking of “Birdman” once again — so that quiet moments still sizzle. Because characters and dialogue are a natural weakness of “1917,” the one-shot method actually enhances the film’s flaws. Deakins and Mendes could have still achieved their masterful scenes without threading them together into one continuous shot, and in this way, the cinematography would have dazzled without the creeping boredom of the film’s slow moments.

And then there’s the acting. Mendes makes the intriguing choice to cast two relative unknowns — George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman — in the two lead roles, and then populate the extras with some bona fide acting talents. Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott all make brief appearances. I admire the effort to subvert expectations, but star power is a genuine factor, and instances like Cumberbatch’s two minutes of riveting screen time make the dearth of experienced talent in the lead roles feel like a mistake — or at least a lost opportunity.

“1917” emerges as a movie with impressive features, namely the directing, editing and cinematography. But it lacks some of the essential aspects of film that extend beyond the visual and the aural — writing and acting, or at least proper dispersion of acting. Its nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars is a head-scratcher and its Oscar nomination for Best Picture feels slightly overblown but understandable in the 10-film category. Where it deserves attention is in its technical features, and I expect Deakins to reap the rewards of his work — while Mendes faces some tough competition but may well emerge victorious. 

I can only hope that “1917” doesn’t take home a Best Picture Oscar next month, as it doesn’t exhibit the fullness of cinema that the category demands. Don’t let that sway you from going to see “1917,” though. It’s worth a watch, especially in a real movie theater where the sights and sounds consume you. 

My advice: let them. Allow the movie to swallow you and enjoy the way it uses its technical virtuosity to encapsulate 18 hours on the brutal battlefields of World War I. The faults may drag it down, but not enough to nullify what is a true achievement in grandiose cinema.