During World War I, two soldiers (played by George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are assigned to notify 1,600 fellow servicemen across enemy lines that they are about to step into a trap in which they will be massacred. 

By now, everyone and their tutu knows that 1917, director Sam Mendes’ World War I epic, was filmed in one long, unending take. Except it wasn’t – that’s the part they leave out of the promotional materials. The film is two hours and is constantly following its main characters through trenches, war torn ruins, battlefields, and even underwater. For a while, the effect is spellbinding, as the hidden cuts were clearly made in carefully choreographed moments where the camera passes someone or is briefly immersed in darkness. Near the end, when we follow a character down a waterfall(!), the novelty goes from being a dramatic device to a means for the filmmakers to show off. 

In the past, doing one-take long shots meant the directors had to spend all day figuring out the footwork, actor movement, and scene placement, then doing hours of re-takes before they would finally land on the ideal shot. The nightclub scene in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, the opening of Robert Altman’s The Player, and the still-unduplicated opening of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil are the master classes of how continuous shots can immerse audiences deeply into the story and setting. In 1917, however, we’re dealing with digital filmmaking and CGI that can manipulate practically anything, so the effect isn’t as mind blowing as it might have been a few decades ago. 

Mendes at least keeps it interesting, which is more than can be said of how a similar CGI gimmick movie would have played in the hands of Joe Wright or Robert Zemeckis. On the other hand, it should be a lot more grueling than it is. Despite the R-rating, this is easily one of the mildest war movies I’ve seen. As a history lesson, it isn’t much and the emotional impact it leaves is more in the direction of the filmmakers and their achievements than what anyone on screen accomplishes. For some, that will be enough. 

The two leads are unknowns and are great scene partners, working well together and maintaining our rooting interest. There’s a great, brief cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch at the end and a somber, commanding bit from Colin Firth in the first half. A major asset is Thomas Newman’s score, adding excitement to scenes where not much more is happening than two men walking from one setting to another. 

I don’t mean to make my praise of 1917 sound like a back-handed compliment, but this is a technical achievement more than an engrossing cinematic experience. The recent Peter Jackson-directed WWI documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, also had the problem of presentation – considerable special effects sometimes getting in the way of the human element. Jackson’s film is imperfect but his remarkable CGI enhancement effects aided the formerly washed out footage that once masked the vividly youthful, hurting faces of those that served. In Mendes’ film, the digital wizardry is so robust, it’s easy to overlook how slight this actually is.

There has never been a World War I film to ever compete with All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone’s masterpiece from 1930, which filled the screen with haunting, tormented faces. That one still rattles me. 1917, in comparison, is an exercise, both as a patience tester for the production and the two leading men who are in constant motion. 

Here’s the thing, though: I enjoyed 1917 and would easily recommend it to my wife and a number of my friends. Yet, is that really a quality you want from a movie about “The Great War”? Shouldn’t we leave a war film feeling drained, renewed in our consciousness of how precious and fragile life is, and moved by what men and women, who are no longer alive, did to fight for their country? Mendes has made a well crafted film but it’s kind of safe. It’s easy and rather obvious to praise what a rich visual experience this offers but many other films, particularly Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, leave a greater impact. Decades removed, we’ll look back at 1917 for Roger Deakins’ awesome cinematography and the sleight of hand digital effects and little else. 

Three Stars

Rated R/119 Min.

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