Review 1917: The drama of Sam Mendes from the First World War can not rise above the one-shot gimmick

The technical hook of 1917, an action drama from the First World War, which is told in one fell swoop, is an illusion. Shady hallways, soldiers crossing the screen, and occasional computer graphics hide the cuts as two young men roam the battle-scarred France to deliver a message of life or death. The style is exciting – danger breaks out of nowhere, and the unbroken drama emphasizes the geography of the discouraging journey. At least first.

The point of 1917 is also an illusion. While Alexander Sokurov’s notorious film “Russian Ark” summarizes 300 years of Soviet history in a single shot, author and director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) looks for anecdotes from the First World War and tropes from the war film as backdrops. Pieces. Renowned cameraman Roger Deakins shoots hell out of everyone, but every generic twist in the story feels like another part of a trick. What is termed an epic film has the emotional weight of David Copperfield as a result of a plane disappearing. But when a movie tries to describe the tragedy of the war, “How do you do that?” No substitute for meaning.

On April 6, 1917, the day the United States enters the war against Germany, an urgent matter emerges in a British ditch: the Germans have withdrawn from one line to another to trap an advancing British faction catch. To prevent a catastrophe, the officers choose Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) to cross the enemy territory and deliver the aerial information. Hoping to rescue his brother, a soldier in the doomed battalion, Blake agrees and grabs his friend Schofield (George MacKay) by the collar to be his other man on the mission. The meticulous, large-scale production design starts this action on a credible foot – that is, it makes Blake’s mission impossible.

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There are pictures in 1917 that will be # OnePerfectShot-ed over the next decade. The wide-lensed Deakins camera work finds macabre beauty as Mendes travels from the trenches to the artificial hell of the battlefield. Blake and Schofield cross barbed wire barricades, a horse-strewn no-man’s-land, and steep levees blasted by mortar fire before they even cross the German border. Every step leaves them open for shots. The dirty expanse and fear emanating from the two soldiers is reason enough to disguise the sequence as an unwavering attitude.

The script does not confirm the rest of the meandering direction. Blake, Schofield and the passers-by feel like proxies to the archetypes of All Quiet on the Western Front, driven by the demands of real-time filmmaking to the finish line. The few moments of personal drama explode in Michael Bay-like stunt sequences that tower above the tone. Even the most picturesque storylines, such as a fistfighted battle of fire, seem more like side quests of James Bond than an extension of the fear of war that Mendes seems to question at first.

As Blake and Schofield enter a German ditch lit by flickering light bulbs, Mendes switches to full horror mode, complete with fears of despair and violence. The turn works until the boys run away and the boundaries of the one-shot pretense become as suffocating as the narrow underground passageways. Combined with the flowing movement, canned lines feel like “the whole thing is coming down!” And “do not let it go!” Right out of an ego shooter campaign. War games such as Battlefield 1 or the Call of Duty series have already delivered the experience of 1917 over and over again and with an even more intense effect.

Universal pictures

Modern war films have found ways to view the war from a new perspective, whether through sophisticated docudrama (Saving Private Ryan), mushy action (Fury) or reduced, exposure-less thrill (Dunkirk). 1917 is not focused enough to take on a clear role. The honest depiction of the destruction and decay of World War I is counteracted by the insistence on namesake actors (quick appearances by Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard Madden are particularly confusing) and Thomas Newman’s familiar, resonant score. If the film feels too crass, Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns get involved in Hollywood moments. A late scene with a French girl and the parentless baby she lodges in an underpopulated city is sweet, unless you think before and after everything else.

1917 is a noble, failed experiment to break the rules. The single-shot movie has an obvious appeal for a director with theatrical education like Sam Mendes. Just as the audience looks out over the stage and the lights of a theater to watch the drama, erasing the conventions of camera work and editing may emphasize the physicality of the performance. In a completely continuous environment, every line, every step, every loss can mean more than in a less-calculated project. Despite over 100 years of meditation on what happened to the men who were sent to battle in World War I, the film has no voice that could be amplified – except at Mendes. The war happened. Here it is. In a setting.

1917 appears on 25 December in limited edition. The film will be shown in full length on January 10, 2020.

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