1917: Tech Epic

When Stanley Kubrick led his men down the trenches with a long tracking shot in Paths of Glory, he established a whole social and political universe. He followed his characters through time and space; he became master of their reality, as though there was nothing above its walls. 1917 uses his tracking shot, and more – it’s obsessed with it. It’s such an all-encompassing interpretation of it that it feels like new technology. It’s an obvious homage made somewhat silly by being played with the tone of a breakthrough. There’s no amount of technical know-how that Sam Mendes misses from the Kubrick reels, and no amount of emotion that he fails to vacuum out of them. 1917 is not a “bad” film, any more than the Rosetta Stone is bad language. But it would be hard to appreciate the stone if it was written after A Farewell to Arms.

The cinematographer Roger Deakins is Mendes’ automatic rifle: he’s shot so many times, it’s amazing that he hasn’t missed yet. To make this movie, which is as about the tracking shot as much as it’s about anything, required Deakins, who plays the main role in the film so convincingly that he has single-handedly brought it to victory at all the awards ceremonies. 1917 is not being praised as a work of great emotion or narrative, as it shouldn’t be, but as a star’s vehicle, as much a virtuoso monologue performance from Deakins as Locke was from Tom Hardy. His shots do not sell a world or a person or a story: they stand on their own; they are shots that beget shots. They are a clock without a face, which is an intriguing sight that may even stop your breath from all the meticulous craftsmanship that went into it. But where are you left when you want to tell time? That’s where I was with 1917.

I don’t believe that movies should always be theater productions (in many ways, Paths of Glory could have been). The two soldiers in 1917 have faces that you probably don’t recognize, yet are as immemorable as faded photos of the faintly familiar creatures losing their minds at the bottom of holes in all those clippings we’ve seen on the History Channel. Mendes tries to take WWI out of the theater and into the gutter. To reduce a war of great men making great claims to such a pair of faces is a feat of great empathy, a Goya impression of a world stage. It could have revived our idea of war through human horror scenery, which always views terrible problems from the perspective of one frightened face.

Yet, empathy is an art of eyes and lips – it’s a recognizable art, for which recognition is the art. And in 1917 we feel like strangers in a History Channel land: the film never leaves the process of its meticulous technology behind, to make room for its world. Deakins keeps shooting, shooting, shooting like a crank man on safari and no one stops him; this film is reenactment-happy. There are of course frank closeups when the camera is in its monumental swing from one axis to the other and intercepts a face, but most of the time we are passengers in this movie – we’re riding sidecar. I know these soldiers better by their necklines than their eyes. If I could have ended the war by remembering their names, we would have lost.

My issue with 1917 is not actually this realism fetish, this “being there” obsession that Mendes and Deakins enact like a co-conspiracy -- my issue is how they attempt to achieve it. By pretending that film doesn’t need an editor, or that cutting has no role in how movies convince us to play a part in them, 1917 falls well below Dunkirk, which used time itself to click us along through an expression of a feeling, a war-in-time, one that was clicking hot in your hands from start to finish. But even still, a film that is just one long feeling can survive on tiny moments; it can burrow into your heart (not every movie has to explode). Son of Saul used shots like those in 1917, which seemed somehow longer, even though Mendes’ film pretends to be comprised of only one. That film was fueled on little feelings and peripheral tragedies – its reality remembers to have room for smallness. This is what 1917 misses.

Its problem isn’t that it views life as one shot long, but that it views everything in that life as a monument to it. Every moment in this film is big, each leading to an evocation of status or purpose. After a brisk walk, a speech will follow, or a tragic accident; a quiet moment must be followed with a bomb. Despite realism (the kind that calculates the amount of water a human body would retain after floating in water for six hours), Deakins interprets every realistic moment in 1917 with so much self-importance that it could be sculpted into a museum mural; it’s a flag-planting in reality drag.

Since every moment is like this, none of them seem any weightier than any others. Consider the climactic run over the trench, with the camera finally in front of the hero. It’s such a blisteringly long journey from the first time the camera shutters open to there that it makes no sense that it’s in the trailer (but that’s what trailers are like these days). Does it really feel like it matters though, that anything is spoiled or deflated by already having seen it? The production is so obsessed with technology that it seems immune to disappointment. Would you be disappointed if you were inspecting an assembly line and accidentally saw the last piston before the first? Or if you did the museum tour out of order and accidentally saw the victory mural before you’d read the display about how the war started?

Whenever there's an opportunity for a small moment (the soldiers find a derelict cottage in the middle of a warzone -- a memorable image), the moment gets going to something big and important. This is especially evident in the way the film treats the survival aspect, which should be central to its goal of gritty immersion but instead feels like an afterthought.

The survival element of 1917 hits hard in moments but they don't arc to anything. The film brings grime to war but seems too embarrassed to peddle it, which takes a lot more gusto than Mendes has (he prettied up the Bond films too, put them in pop-art attire; he doesn’t love the macabre even though he thinks it would be cool to do so). Using up their entire water canteens to flush out someone’s eyes, for instance, doesn’t lead to these soldiers being thirsty later; you’re calculating this as they do it, like a good soldier, but in the movie it doesn’t matter. 1917 goes out of its way to make us wince when someone cuts their hand on barbed wire and then accidentally sticks it in a rotting corpse. But that wince in that moment is all that comes of it; his hand never bothers him, makes him lose his grip, or develops gangrene. It’s a moment of shocking reality like a blurb in a documentary about something awful. It then acts like it has no use for it, or it was some bygone historical fact in someone’s diary and we don’t have any further details on what became of it.

What it really amounts to is a lack of focus on why we go through this ordeal at all. The corporal we’re following is reluctant to go at first, and by the end has a sociopathic disregard for his own life to complete the mission (as all war heroes must have; I don’t doubt it and I don’t blame them). This is an arc forged from hardship: if we could call it the centerpiece of the movie, I would say it shines brightly and looks good in the room. Deakins has the whole dining room lit impeccably, no doubt, but no one ever stopped to plan a meal. I didn’t understand 1917 in my head until I realized it was all centerpieces.

Our heroes walk past people who would be the subjects of another film, and sometimes I wished this was the case. Then later our corporal dodges enemy fire in ruins lit by flares as the camera zooms along its track; people are on motorcycle, in rivers, running across fields of wire and plains of bones. 1917 has been touted as an immersive experience; it was counter-immersive for me. Every second was like a demonstration of the devices that made it: the flares hit the surface of a set, as the camera moves along a track and whose movement you can feel. Watching the film feels like you’re watching its own “making of” documentary.

Is this wrong? It was a singularly interesting experience, less similar to modern cinema than to impressions I get of early movies when they were demonstrations in tents designed to “astound” and “amaze.” Unlike Dunkirk, where the soldiers’ anonymity faded into the backdrop of a meticulous montage of events, 1917’s schematic really needed a strong sense of character to carry the load of all this technology. There’s a wonderful scene in a derelict waiting room in the occupied French villa; our corporal stops and finds a woman with a baby who isn’t hers and he rests for a while and gives them milk. It’s one of the better scenes.

But by this point, the impossible time crunch on his mission has been made so abundantly, repeatedly clear that the audience’s natural reaction is to fidget: “Get a move on!” It becomes clear after a while that if he stops for too many movie scenes, he’ll never make it in time. For a filming strategy that would seem to imply an elongated sense of time to reflect the hopeless longevity of the war it’s about, 1917 has the opposite effect. Yes, it’s one shot long; it’s not only impressive but it feels impressive too, in that way that ingenious filmmaking never does (ingenuity convinces you it was easy, not hard). This one is one and done.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©DreamWorks Pictures

Cast & Crew

Sam Mendes

Sam Mendes

Krysty Wilson-Cairns

Lance Corporal William Schofield George MacKay
Lance Corporal Tom Blake Dean-Charles Chapman
Lauri Claire Duburcq
General Erinmore Colin Firth
Colonel Mackenzie Benedict Cumberbatch
Captain Smith Mark Strong
Andrew Scott Lieutenant Joseph Blake

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