Most bets were on Sam Mendes’s World War I epic to take the Best Picture Oscar at last week’s Academy Awards ceremony, but no one seems to be griping that he was robbed. I guess that most people who saw all of the nominated films probably think that the best one won, but it’s still worth discussing why 1917 was favored in the first place. The thinking is that movies about heavy-duty themes (war) that are also technically challenging (the famous “one take” gambit) have an advantage with Academy voters. Within those narrow parameters, 1917 is quite good and exerts its intended power as you watch it. Afterwards, however, it fails to linger, a function of its gimmick rather than its theme.
World War I is pretty much the default conflict for antiwar movies since no one has ever really come up with a justifiable excuse for its wholesale slaughter, and that’s the subtheme of 1917, which goes without saying and so doesn’t feel particularly penetrating or fresh, though the automatic patriotism on display is never contradicted. Essentially, we have two young British soldiers, Schofield (George McKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who have been ordered by their commander to travel behind enemy lines and deliver a message to another company to cancel a planned attack, since new intelligence indicates the company would be walking into a trap. This is where the one-take gambit comes in: We watch the pair carry out their order every step of the way. So automatically there is a slight deficit, since the movie is only two hours and the trip seems to take much more than that. (Granted, there is one scene where time seems to take a break.) What’s more impressive than the one-take gimmick and Roger Deakins’ masterful camerawork is the production design, which conveys the hellscape of this particular battle front in sickening detail, the bodies churned in the mud, the massive craters, the total affront to nature. And some of the tableaux, like a bombed out French town burning at night, are so breathtaking as to be comparable to great oil paintings. The music, on the other hand, tends to be a bit too much.
There isn’t a lot of plot to absorb or deal with, just the constant reiteration of atrocity, which exerts its own suspenseful power, though that power shouldn’t be mistaken for drama, which does happen occasionally but doesn’t stay with you for more than a minute. Relentlessness has its own numbing effect. Consequently, the film is most powerful in snatches, when someone dies unexpectedly or a fight ensues that seems endless. It’s here where Mendes’s methods work, but they don’t necessarily have a cumulative effect. And since the one-take gambit relies on control, the chaos that is endemic to war is undermined. 1917 is excellently staged and masterfully choreographed, but its “war is hell” signifiers are too impressive in and of themselves. You leave in awe of the work, which may not have been what Mendes had in mind.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-05068), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
1917 home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2019 Universal Studios and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC