1917 Review: Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins Make Sure This is Not Just Another War Movie

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1917 Review: Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins Make Sure This is Not Just Another War Movie

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

There is nothing that quite captures the urgency of being alive than a battle film. In cinema, war becomes a stand-in for the unpredictability of life itself, tapping a reservoir of human emotions – commitment, bravery, fear, solidarity, pride, ego, and self-sabotage – that flow unhurried in one continuous take.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to presume that it’s this point of view of battle that Sam Mendes wanted to replicate in 1917, a World War I drama filmed to appear as if it occurs in one single shot, unruptured from its own umbilical cord. It’s as poetic a flourish as it is a move that is unquestionably grandstanding. Yet, the film’s stirring, thrilling technical fluency ensures that it never becomes a gimmick. 

Like most war movies, 1917, which is set in Northern France, is essentially a race against time. The participants are Lance Corporals Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who’ve been enlisted to traverse across enemy territory in under 24 hours to deliver a message to their fellow troops about to launch a self-destructive attack. The destination of the film’s narrative is in the breathless journey of these two soldiers — across trenches, minefields, and tragedy

1917

The craft of the film is its art — and this perhaps why I found it impossible to see 1917’s technical pluck as a separate entity, removed from the film’s narrative.

DreamWorks Pictures/ Reliance Entertainment

Yet, as a story that wants to peddle the virtues of bravery and duty, 1917 is lacking. Mendes doesn’t bother with politics or context, and save for a haunting cameo (by no less than the actor of the season, Andrew Scott) that gives away more than meets the eye, the film doesn’t delve into the baggage that comes with conflict either. 

At the same time, it also seems futile to search for the film’s emotional core in its language and not in its structure. The camera, that takes up space as the film’s third protagonist, diligently tracking the two soldiers — sometimes behind them, and at other times, beside them — single-handedly imbibing the proceedings with layers that replicate the urgency of something being at stake in every moment. The craft of the film is its art — and this perhaps why I found it impossible to see 1917’s technical pluck as a separate entity, removed from the film’s narrative. It might be easy to say that 1917 is nothing without its elaborate, audacious cinematographic trickery, but that’s a pointless accusation given that the film is clear in its insistence to locate itself in its visual grammar.

The art of 1917 is in the craft of its filmmaking. That is to say that 1917 isn’t plotted as much as it is meticulously choreographed. The attention to detail is startlingly impressive, courtesy the seamless coalescing of the film’s various technical departments. As the action moves from one hellish landscape to another, almost like a video game, the audience has no option but to find itself in the midst of chaos.

The art of 1917 is in the craft of its filmmaking. That is to say that 1917 isn’t plotted as much as it is meticulously choreographed.

The film is shot by Roger Deakins, which in itself is enough endorsement, and worth the price of admission. Deakins is at his unvarnished best, infusing complexity and conflict into the narrative through the silhouette of war itself. There are sequences that are nothing short of masterpieces, like a post-interval moment where Deakins plays with light and shadows to recreate the recklessness of a chase in a way that seems inimitable. In another scene, the camera takes Schofield – and by extension, the audience – through a suffocating dive into the waters at dawn. This precise immersive quality of 1917 — it’s almost impossible to blink — is derived as much from Mendes’ singular ambition as his jaw-dropping devotion to execution.

It’s also why it didn’t bother me that 1917 is emotionally underwhelming, given that it sustains its drama through its fluid, nail-biting filmmaking. That the film doesn’t spell out the horrors of war should barely be a minor annoyance. On their part, the film’s leads, MacKay in particular (with his hypnotic face), turn in affecting performances that wear the nervous anxiety and helplessness that is expected when obliged to fight for the greater good. A spare conversation between Schofield and Blake, that refuses to mask the reluctant suffering of a soldier, is quietly moving.

But, the film’s most intimate moment comes in its closing sequence: Schofield, spent and relieved, takes a moment to himself and rests against a tree, away from the noise of battle. He takes out a picture of his wife and daughters and stares at it longingly, a scene that wordlessly makes a distinction between duty and responsibility. It acquires an even greater meaning in light of the post-credit slate that reveals that the film is based loosely on stories of the director’s grandfather’s time in the war.

A tribute to a life is one hell of an emotional anchor.

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