On April 6, 1917, British soldiers Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay) are sent on a perilous mission to venture out into the French no-man’s-land and deliver a message to an allied battalion — in which Tom’s brother serves — warning them that they are walking into a trap before they launch their attack at dawn.
You can all breathe a sigh of relief — for the first time since La La Land, the annual Oscar Villain is still very, very good, and it’ll be difficult to complain about whatever awards it ultimately brings down. Unless Joker suddenly starts gaining traction, it appears 1917 will fill that role in 2020. And as much as it’s the traditional, safe choice, it packs a lot of invention into its done-before premise and is well crafted in a way that will be difficult even for its most committed detractors to deny.
And like La La Land before it, I think I may like 1917 even more than the average person, albeit not by a whole lot. And that’s mainly because I think the most frequent complaint about it sort of misses the point.
Basically, its strength is its weakness — the widely publicized decision to make the movie appear as though it was done in one shot (though it’s really more like two — there’s one time skip that marks a clear line between the movie’s first and second halves). The effect is that 1917 has an extremely limited scope, essentially unfolding in real time. These characters are given their mission, and you follow them through it from beginning to end. And what I hear most often, from people who didn’t like the movie as much, is that if you take away that gimmick, there really isn’t all that much to 1917 — because of its narrow focus and short narrative timeframe, it doesn’t have a lot of room to develop characters and tell a story. There’s just the tension of the mission itself.
The thing is…they’re right, but I think they’re also sort of wrong, at least in that they’re undervaluing the importance of cinema itself in this equation. I think some people view story as a universal constant for which film, television, and literature are simply neutral delivery systems. In this worldview, the medium in which a story is told is selected arbitrarily — normally determined by the resources available to the teller. The process of crafting it is then the same. But there’s truth to the old adage that the medium is the message — the way a story is told affects the story itself, changes what it is, both in the micro and macro senses. Each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, and ideally, a story is told in the one that best suits it.
So yes, I fully concede that if 1917 had the same script but was shot like a regular movie, I’d be wondering what all the fuss was about. It would be just another war movie, stripped bare for absolutely no reason. A sequence of unrelated incident. But the way a story is told is just as important as what’s in it — and the way 1917 is told is intentional, a fundamental part of the effect it’s meant to have.
This is another example of cinema as pure experience — filmmakers figuring out how to use an artistic medium to convey you to a time and place you’ve never visited, to capture the feeling of something, to make you empathize with things that are foreign to you. 1917’s method is to cut away all the fat, to take you right to the source, to communicate the emotional tangle of war as directly as possible.
The movie it most reminds me of is Dunkirk. I said something very similar about it back when it was released. It had the same end, I think — putting you on the ground level, stripping away the writerly quality of things so that you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with the people enduring this hell. And I find that interesting because even as 1917 and Dunkirk have an almost identical emotional and intellectual impact, they arrive at it in exactly the opposite way.
Christopher Nolan tackled Dunkirk with an editor’s hand. He played with the hurry-up-and-wait terror of war’s random destruction by cutting three timelines together — a soldier’s week, a sailor’s day, and a pilot’s two hours, all of which unfolded alongside one another in the same length of movie time. He shot a lot of disparate footage and skillfully assembled it to capture the emotional peaks and crevasses simultaneously, to make a movie that felt as though it stood out of time. War became a second and an eternity all at once. He didn’t worry about conventional storytelling or character because that wasn’t really the point — only depicting the anxious stew of a desperate battle’s ebb and flow. In short, Dunkirk was a lot — a technically complex movie with layers upon layers of filmmaking going into making what it was.
1917’s tactics are similar only in that the movie is laser-focused on a single time and place, and is narratively stripped down only to what makes logical sense within its chosen framework. Otherwise, it turns what Dunkirk did completely on its head. The rapid-fire editing, the multiple timelines, the complicated balancing act — there’s none of that here. What you have, instead, are these characters, this camera, and a single event unfolding around them.
And it forgoes taking any larger look at that event — its context within the war, for instance. In a lot of ways, it’s the story of any other war movie’s background characters, the nameless, faceless men running into battle behind the A-list stars. They’re people who experience all the same fear, the sense of their own mortality, the anxiety of what they might be becoming, the dawning realization that they might never really go home even if they survive all of this. But their names won’t be in the history books, they’ll never see the big picture, they don’t get to make the important decisions, and they’ll never know whether it was worth it for them, personally, to join this fight. And yet, they are the heroes of their own stories, as are we all. This was life and death, an existence-defining event.
1917 puts you there with them. From beginning to end, you’re on this mission, observing, participating, experiencing it as fully as possible without actually being there. The movie does a beautiful job of helping you sense the randomness, the strangeness of coping with the calm between fights, the way even war becomes routine. It’s great at grounding you within the significance of these events to the characters you’re with, and punctuating it with reminders that all of this is only a blip in the grand scheme. Men will live and die, the sum total of their existence forever defined, and the war will go on regardless.
There’s a certain bleak spectacle to it, of course. 1917 wasn’t actually filmed in one shot; it could not possibly have been. It’s only made to look that way. But that still means a lot of long takes, and I’m truly mystified as to how much of this was accomplished. I’m eager to see what I hope will be substantial making-of documentaries in the future. To the extent that 1917 could perhaps be considered Best Picture Evil, I’m not sure I could register any complaint against Sam Mendes winning Best Director for it — the thought of what went into wrangling all of this gives me hives.
But it’s no gimmick. All of this was very purposefully done, and not for the empty reason of impressing you with a show of technical skill (though it certainly does that). It’s a means of drawing you into the proceedings. 1917 displays the full capabilities of cinema — script, direction, performance all working in tandem, no one thing defining the experience. Yes, if you were to take any one thing away from it, it probably wouldn’t be a good movie. But turn that on its head — imagine complaining that a movie would be bad if someone removed the script. Of course it would be — that’s a fundamental component! So it is for 1917 and its “gimmick” — it’s here for a reason. It’s nothing without it, but so’s a car if you remove the engine.
And for what it’s worth, when 1917 does engage on that “deeper” level, it tends to do so skillfully. It does commendable work within its extremely limited confines sketching these characters into something resembling human beings. You might not come to know them in full psychological depth, but you have a sense of them. Now and then, 1917 sort of has to force a moment — it has scenes where you can tell what it’s trying to do but don’t feel it getting there, or even establishing a purpose for the attempt. But more often than not, it’s graceful about threading story through the proceedings.
For all its faults, 1917 is pure cinema in the rarest sense of the term, a movie that demonstrates every unique advantage of the medium. It’s meant to be seen on the big screen. I’m happy I was able to do so before the almost inevitable backlash ruins my brain.