Describe This Movie In One Monty Python Quote:
NARRATOR: ... in a reign of violence, terror and torture that makes a smashing film.
Brief Plot Synopsis: British buddies brave bushels of bullets, battle Boche.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: 2.5 Snoopy on his Sopwith Camels out of 5.
Tagline: "Time is the enemy."
Better Tagline: "In war, there are no save points."
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: The Great War is in full swing and the Germans are in retreat in Northern France, except not really. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) has obtained intelligence that the Germans have set a trap for the advancing 2nd Battalion, and sends a pair of lance corporals, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) to deliver orders to stop the attack. Adding to the urgency of their mission: Blake's brother is a lieutenant in the 2nd.
"Critical" Analysis: World War I is, quite literally, one of the oldest subjects in cinema history (WWI action/romance Wings won the first Best Picture Oscar in 1928). It may lag behind its successor (the Second World War, for those skimming this review) in sheer numbers, but the trenches and misery of the so-called War To End All Wars are very familiar film territory.
How, then, to offer a fresh perspective on this venerable conflict? If you're director Sam Mendes, the answer is to make a movie designed to look as if it was shot in one take and hope everyone focuses on the technical merits alone.
For a film about one of the most chaotic conflicts in a war that set new standards for devastation, 1917 at times succumbs to Mendes's meticulous staging. The cinematography, courtesy of the inimitable Roger Deakins, is often stunning, and the production itself was a staggering ordeal, but lost in all that is the emotion that marks all great war movies.
There's an obvious parallel to 1917, and that's Gallipoli, Peter Weir's heartbreaking story of the doomed ANZAC campaign. But unlike that movie, the rigidity of Mendes's production means we never get to know Schofield and Blake, resulting in what amounts to a series of cut scenes.
Kaiser's Lair, maybe. One can almost imagine a player wrenching the joystick to initiate the sequence that avoids a crashing German biplane.
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And effects like those, while necessary (not even the vaunted extended takes in Children of Men were done without the aid of CGI), just add more to the occasionally gimmicky feel of the film. Mendes attempted to recreate the hellscapes of the Western Front, but these scenes still feel oddly santized, and the daylight scenes are often strangely washed out.
It doesn't help that we're not that far removed from several better war movies (Dunkirk, They Shall Not Grow Old), or that Mendes resorts to military stereotypes that were fresh when Clara Bow was still alive.
These come mainly via cameos from famous British dudes, all of whom seem to have appeared in a Sherlock Holmes show or movie: Benedict Cumberbatch as the obstinate colonel, Mark Strong as a flinty-eyed veteran, Andrew Scott as a jaded frontline officer. All engineered — as usual — to lend urgency to (or highlight the folly of) the mission.
Sam Mendes made 1917 to honor a tale told to him by his grandfather, who served in that horrible conflict. This is admirable, to be sure, but by relying on technique over most everything else, he takes the focus from the characters, where it truly belongs.