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1917 review: turning a nightmare war into a theme park showcase

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1917 is a bit of a brag track, a cinematic flex by people who are really damn good with a camera. The World War I film from Skyfall director Sam Mendes is made to look like one continuous shot, a harrowing nonstop journey through war-torn France in the first modern conflict. After winning Best Drama…

1917 is a bit of a brag track, a cinematic flex by people who are really damn good with a camera. The World War I film from Skyfall director Sam Mendes is made to look like one continuous shot, a harrowing nonstop journey through war-torn France in the first modern conflict. After winning Best Drama Motion Picture at the Golden Globe Awards last weekend, it’s easy to imagine a world where it kills at the upcoming Oscars. It hits a lot of the right notes. 1917 is a solemn war movie with popular appeal, the kind of thing that makes award nominations guaranteed. But it’s also hollow, lacking the emotional heart that makes the genre more than empty spectacle.

1917 tells a focused, briskly paced story. Inspired by stories Mendes heard about his grandfather who served in the war, the film follows Schofield and Blake, two British soldiers in northern France who are tasked with delivering an urgent letter to another battalion ordering them to call off a pending attack, lest they be slaughtered in an ambush.

And follow them it does. The camera becomes the third member of their party, disguising every cut to make the film appear as one unbroken sequence. Clever staging and wonderful composition help 1917 pull this feat off incredibly well, but in embracing cinematic showmanship, the film leaves little for viewers to grab on to when it comes to characters. This makes the whole endeavor feel both valiant and vain, a stunning movie experience that evaporates in your mind not long after seeing it.

There was a time in the mid-2010s when all anyone making movies or TV wanted to do was pull off a show-stopping long take. True Detective’s first season turned heads with a mid-series continuous-shot shootout in early 2014. One year later, Birdman, another film mostly presented as a single shot, would sweep the Oscars. Around and in between, there were others. These kinds of feats have always been impressive. They’re hard to do and require careful planning and meticulous execution. You can’t cut away from shoddy CGI; a fight scene has to be clearly choreographed. Viewers have to always understand where the characters are in a scene and understand a space. Making a continuous shot a centerpiece of a film or TV episode draws your attention to some of the more invisible aspects of movie magic, and, used properly, it’s an incredible technique. It’s also an alienating one.

1917 has a small cast, but there are more than a few faces you’d recognize. Colin Firth makes an appearance, as does Andrew Scott of Fleabag fame, and Mark Strong. You might miss them entirely, though, because the camera never really gets close to them. It never lingers, never engages with them on a level any deeper than the bare minimum for establishing the action. Close cuts are used to foster intimacy, and if a camera never truly gets close to anyone, then we aren’t likely to either. In 1917, the horror and spectacle of war are impressive but never felt.

It’s the visual language of video games, but video games pull it off because that distanced voyeurism also comes with something additive: interactivity. Eventually, you will become involved. That is not something a film can offer.

There aren’t many pop culture touchpoints for World War I. It’s not that entertainment has ignored it — on the contrary, there are dozens of novels and movies like All Quiet on the Western Front about the Great War — it’s just that modern filmmakers have found much more fertile cinematic ground a few decades later, in World War II. It is, for reasons that are at best crass and ghoulish, the more cinematic war.

Very little about World War I can be sold that way. It was incited by an absurd implosion of political entanglements and waged in rot, with the Western Front characterized by three years of attrition and trench warfare. When fighting happened, it introduced new horrors to the world: chemical weapons, automatic firearms, tanks. All of it is too crude for dressing up in a slick war story and too effective to be seen as anything other than monstrous.

In its most effective moments, 1917 conveys this: piles of cratered soil are revealed to not just be scorched earth, but heaps of corpses. A man’s hand, seeking stability, sinks into someone’s rotting chest cavity. Dead horses litter No Man’s Land. Schofield and Blake are descending into hell, after all. It’d be a shame if we were impressed by it.

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