1917 (2019): Film Review
At the heart of Sam Mendes' "one-shot gimmick" World War I movie, there is a good premise. Well, a good enough premise. There was an idea to "trick" the viewer of sorts to provide the war from a different point of view, where the audience could, first-hand, follow the quest of two British soldiers as they proceeded on a dangerous mission through enemy lands to attempt to save 1600 men. And I'm going to be honest, the idea was absolutely brilliant. There is no movie like 1917, and by technical standards, the film actively raises the bar for what movies about the horrors of the battlefield should look like. But there's still something off about this movie, and it comes down to the story: it just isn't captivating enough. But luckily, 1917's beautiful direction and excellent original score somewhat make up for the jaded mess that the plot truly is.
As stated above, the film follows two British soldiers for two hours on a beyond-dangerous mission, where our heroes have encounters through allied trenches, enemy trenches, and the beautiful but war-torn landscape of France. On paper, the plot sounds brilliant, it is impossible to deny that. But for a movie where the stakes are so high, the execution of the story just seems, well, lazy. Right from the start of the movie, the audience is dropped into the action - in the first five minutes, we know what the mission is, and right after that, the journey begins, not letting up until the end credits roll. We know absolutely nothing about the two main characters, or their relationship to each other, which makes it much harder to actually relate to the characters you are investing two hours to watch. On top of this, it constantly feels as if the film is simply a set-piece after set-piece, with a long tracking shot in between to ease a transition. This structure makes the film feel awfully disconnected, and at some points, becomes frustrating to watch. The fact that this is even a problem in a movie as grand and bold as this one is disappointing beyond belief, because in a film that seems to be doing everything else right, a lazy story just feels unnatural, making 1917 a completely and undeservingly underwhelming experience.
Just because the plot is shallow doesn't mean that the entire film is absolutely horrible, because even though there are a plethora of problems here, there is also a lot to like. The direction by Sam Mendes is amazing, and the "one-shot" gimmick, although it actually turns out to be two separate shots, is brilliantly done. The gimmick fits perfectly in a movie such as this one, and is a film medium I would love to see explored further in future releases. On top of this, Roger Deakins' cinematography is absolutely beautiful (as always), and is completely necessary and pulled-off for a movie of this caliber. Thomas Newman has delivered one of the best, if not the best, original scores of the year with a 87 minute soundtrack (the movie is 120 minutes long to put that in perspective) that is absolutely marvelous, including a wide variety of instrumentals that are both beautiful to listen to and an amazing complement to the cinematography.
The thing about 1917 is that it is a beautiful movie. In fact, there is a six minute stretch near the end (you'll know the scene) that will forever be impacting the world of action cinema, and maybe even cinema as a whole. This scene has everything going for it - beautifully shot, amazing music, and the scene feels both relevant and necessary. The technical and spiritual aspects of the scene are crystal clear, and completely on point. But that's the problem with the film - there's truly only one scene that really gets it right. And while the rest is fine, and physically beautiful, it could be so much more. And as much as I hate to say it, 1917 is a disappointment. A hurtful one at that.