Review: “1917” is visually stimulating but lacks an effective script

by Willem Gerrish | 01/17/20 2:00 a.m.

Thanks to surprise wins for Best Director and Best Drama at the Golden Globes, Sam Mendes’ daring ‘1917’ film experience has been a buzzword, garnering a spike of attention he hopes to bring to 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 a single take. It sounds a lot like Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s masterful 2015 Oscar winner for best film of the year, “Birdman.” Unlike “Birdman,” however, “1917 ″ lacks a scintillating script or multi-faceted characters, but it makes up for some of that loss with the grandeur of its cinematic vision.

Mendes, already a brilliant director in his own right, enlists the legendary Roger Deakins as cinematographer – and the two treat ‘1917’ as a sandbox for stunning visual gymnastics. Liquid and captivating, the camera work is certainly a magnetic factor for the film. In one case, cameras show viewers a figure floating down a river and over a waterfall, and in another, Deakins follows a frenzied escape through a shattered French town lit only by flares.

The effect is a movie that pulls you in its grip and doesn’t let go until the credits roll – feels like it’s taking place in real time, though a few nifty tricks move the time forward while you focus on it. other details. I can now say that I endorse Mendes’ Golden Globe for Best Director in retrospect, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it repeat at the Oscars, hopefully with proper credit for Deakins in the cinematography category as well.

A movie, however, is made up of more than its visual elements, and this is where “1917” begins to lose quality. The plot is good enough: The British Army enlists a soldier, Blake, and his friend, Schofield, to deliver an overnight message that will prevent a British attack from falling into a German trap. Higher Command chooses Blake because of a vested interest in the matter – his brother is one of the soldiers who is about to come out of the trench and in certain death and they know Blake will take on this mission for him. good family. Schofield is the unlucky partner of choice, and he blames Blake first for dragging him into what could very well be a suicide mission.

An inevitable affair ensues, of course, but much of it falls flat. Bringing out the human depth of characters involved in combat is often a challenge in war movies, but it has been done well in the past, most notably in Steven Spielberg’s famous film “Saving Private Ryan”.

“1917” has a dual inferior script problem – Mendes’ writing was never a selling point – and an inherent focus on action. The film is really a film about movement, which forces all kinds of character development into the realm of afterthought. You could argue that well-crafted characters and writing isn’t the point of a movie like “1917,” and that’s certainly true, but that doesn’t make it a better movie in and of itself – just a movie. live up to its own ambitions.

I also have a bone to choose from with the whole one shot gimmick, as much as I love the concept and the fact that its execution is almost flawless in “1917”. The problem is, “1917” would be a better movie, at least in a classic sense, without the narrative limitations of a single shot. The idea of ​​a bang creates the need for down moments, as life unfolding in real time does not jump from scene to scene but follows natural lulls between excitement.

The way to compensate for the problem is to reinvigorate a dialogue – I think of “Birdman” again – so that the quiet moments sizzle again. Because the characters and dialogue are a natural weakness of “1917”, the one shot method actually improves on the flaws of the film. Deakins and Mendes still could have done their masterful scenes without stringing them together in one continuous shot, and that way the cinematography would have dazzled without the creeping boredom of the film’s slow moments.

And then there is the acting. Mendes makes the intriguing choice of picking two relative strangers – George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman – in the two lead roles, and then filling the extras with real acting skills. Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Andrew Scott all make cameo appearances. I admire the efforts to subvert expectations, but star power is a real factor, and cases like Cumberbatch’s captivating two minutes onscreen make the shortage of experienced talent in leading roles seen as a factor. mistake – or at least a lost opportunity.

“1917” appears as a film with impressive characteristics, namely direction, editing and cinematography. But it lacks some of the core aspects of the film that extend beyond the visual and the audio – the writing and the acting, or at least a good scattering of the acting. His nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars is puzzle and her Oscar nomination for Best Picture seems slightly over the top but understandable in the 10-movie category. Where it deserves attention is in its technical characteristics, and I expect Deakins to reap the rewards of its labor – while Mendes faces stiff competition but may well emerge victorious.

I can only hope that “1917 ″ doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Picture next month, as it doesn’t showcase the fullness of cinema that the category demands. Don’t let that stop you from going to see “1917”, however. It’s worth watching, especially in a real movie theater where the sights and sounds consume you.

My advice: leave them. Let the film engulf you and enjoy how it uses its technical virtuosity to encapsulate 18 hours on the brutal battlefields of WWI. Flaws can slow it down, but not enough to undo what is quite a feat in grand cinema.

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