1917 ★★½

The technical achievements of 1917 are impressive. I liked how they achieved the illusion of the single take and I liked the way the camera managed to find little details whilst sweeping through the spectacle. I also quite liked the casting, particularly the choice of character actors with interesting faces for the main roles. Even Colin Firth blended nicely and it was only Benedict Cumberbatch who drew attention away from the film. 

What I didn’t like was the video game aesthetic and the way the film transformed the scale and horror of war into a tale of save my brother / honour my friend derring do. I felt the film was another example of our 21st century infantilism when it comes to depictions of the World Wars, and it bothers me that we dress them up as sentimental entertainment with a slick veneer of technical sheen to make them alluring. This film had nothing of substance to say, it was purely designed to thrill and emote, like a party drug. 

From a storytelling perspective it was also pretty scratchy. The proposition that the army command would risk the survival of two battalions on the low probability of success of sending two everyday privates, one of whom is okay with maps and has a personal incentive to succeed, was extremely far-fetched, particularly when they knew that the Germans had retreated and they could easily send more men. And explaining this implausibility aside with a poem by Rudyard Kipling only made it worse. And I struggled with how the war just seemed to stop whenever an emotional scene was needed. And the scene with the baby was mawkish nonsense. And the soldier speaking English to the woman speaking French but understanding each other was ridiculous. And the Germans were hopeless shots, but then they always are.  

What I also disliked was the sound design. The way the filmmakers used terrible music in place of the terrifying noises and silences of war was cheap emotional short-cutting. The way a company could turn up unheard at a deserted farm in their trucks and boots was extremely unlikely. The way the shells suddenly stopped exploding in the midst of battle when the protagonist had to deliver his message was just fantasy. 

I know it’s only a film, but it bothers me that people think it’s okay to make an expensive film that cheapens the terrible experience of war by borrowing the aesthetics of fantasy-based video games and sentimental romanticised storytelling. Ah, but then again, as Kipling said: never look backwards or you’ll fall down the stairs.

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