1917

1917 ★★★½

92nd Time's the Charm (4/9)

Sam Mendes, the man behind the latest two James Bond films, is no stranger to the realm of the war film, having already shown the boredom and alienation of the Gulf War in Jarhead as a result of the advances of methods and technology for warfare available. Taking a step back and diving into an even greater and more significant battle between countries, World War I, 1917 aims at something even more personal than the last one, taking influence from stories Sam's grandfather would tell him (a fact reflected upon in the film's dedication to him) of the less sophisticated and calculated weapons and transportation available. Thus, we have a film that tries to replicate as best it can what it was like to be in such a tense state of survival, fueled by a great deal of other qualities that I can respect and see value in, but not enough to truly put myself into the war like it wants me to.

Immediately giving a sense of urgency through two young soldiers asked to deliver a letter to call off a doomed-to-fail mission, compounded with one of the soldier's brothers being part of the compromised troopers, the film makes a point in showing just how destructive war really is. Most of the film takes place in the aftermaths and set-ups of battles, traveling along the demolished barracks and farmlands as our protagonists make the difficult journey. Far from the loud, earth-shaking gunfire and explosives most war films fill themselves to the brim with, it is very much a smaller-scale exploration that scales itself down to foot soldiers, yet emphasizes that the danger of German attackers are still just as oppressive. The idea that any one of the opposite side could jeopardize an entire British mission through a well-aimed shot at a single messenger is something that would be treated as just a slice of the Hell of war in most pictures, but here it shows that everyone has a part to play in it, and it isn't always the adrenaline rush that we expect the bloody war to be (if anything, its sparseness makes the actual combat all the more effective and enticing).

In order to try and bring us down to the reality of the war and how such a messenger journey would pan out, the film uses the oft-mentioned "one take" presentation to try and give a real-time account of it. I can respect its intent in replicating a time-sensitive event by giving us the audience a sense of just how long traveling through foot in a ravaged warzone would be, but it rarely ever convinces me that it wouldn't work if it was traditionally edited, some meandering moments of the camera trying to find where it should be not helping (ironically, the one moment where it feels justified is its single hard cut, as a result of getting so used to its single long take style). This wouldn't normally be a problem, as Birdman does the same thing and is still a great film, but here my mind tends to wander and speculate on where the disguised cuts are, never being sucked in and loving the material at hand unlike Birdman and constantly finding the "long take" method interesting rather than necessary. Not a gimmick, but not revolutionary. It just works.

In a way, that could boil down my entire thoughts on 1917 as a film that I respect and find elements I like, but nothing rapturous or truly remarkable to me. Roger Deakin's cinematography is on-point and certainly the most noteworthy of what I've seen so far in that department, especially the way he captures fire and flares as the sole light source of a ruined town. Thomas Newton's score helps elevate the intensity of both the smaller and larger conflicts and is convincing even as it runs ever-so-slightly close to being sappy. It's a film that truly flirts with greatness, especially during one of its final scenes that has an unexpected detail of realism and an impressive level of scope to its battlefield and inhabitants, but never meets me all the way and leaves me somewhat unfulfilled. Like I said, I respect its technical merits, its subtle way of showing how awful the war can really be, and its real-time survival style that only feels like a video game 10% of the time, but it just doesn't click for me as a great work of art, especially in this killer of a year. Hmm.

Dad's Review: No story, OK cinematography, confusing sniper scene. Good costumes, 5/10.

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