Monday, January 13, 2020

In Theaters: 1917 (2019)

(US/UK/Spain - 2019)

Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Adrian Scarborough, Daniel Mays, Pip Carter, Richard McCabe, Billy Postlethwaite, Robert Maaser. (R, 119 mins)

A WWI epic inspired by a story that director/co-writer Sam Mendes was told by his Lance Corporal grandfather, 1917 is an impressive technical achievement that's so devoted to its--for lack of a better word--gimmick, that it's pulled off at the expense of telling the story in the most beneficial way. Drawing from older classics like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and Stanley Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY with the more visceral, you-are-there immediacy of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and DUNKIRK, 1917 attempts to convey its entire run time as one continuous shot, a la Hitchcock's ROPE or Alejandro G. Inarritu's BIRDMAN. Of course, if you go into any exercise of this type knowing that, you start getting distracted by trying to spot where the usually seamless cuts are, and here, the spell is momentarily broken by a huge mid-film cut to black when a character is knocked unconscious. Mendes, who has the distinction of directing the both strongest (SKYFALL) and weakest (SPECTRE) of the Daniel Craig 007 outings, makes a valiant effort to go for those Kubrick long takes and uses the legendary auteur's old standby of natural light with the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, but once its plot is set in motion, it strangely lacks the emotion or the urgency that the situation requires, primarily because Mendes' overriding concern is the single-take illusion.

Set over one day and into the morning of the next, 1917 has Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) sent by Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth) to hand-deliver a message to a battalion several miles away with orders to halt a planned attack on German forces. Aerial intel reveals that the Germans have set a trap or them, and the 1600 men under the command of Col. McKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch)--including Blake's older brother (Richard Madden)--will most likely be wiped out. All lines of communication have been cut by the Germans, leaving no alternative but for Schofield and Blake to go on foot, crossing the abandoned German front and getting through the town of Ecoust and finding McKenzie's battalion. It's a simple set-up with an intricately choreographed execution, albeit with significant digital assistance. For a while, the technique dazzles, especially as Schofield and Blake make their way across a harrowing wasteland of mud, blood, dead soldiers and horse carcasses. A trek through the vacated German trenches leads to an explosion when a rat crosses a tripwire. A dogfight between two British planes and a German pilot ends up having serious consequences to the mission.

The more 1917 goes on, the more gimmicky it looks. Because there's hardly any time to learn about these characters, the emotional stakes aren't there, and all that's left is the single-take concept. That works to a point, but eventually, you may question why Mendes was so concerned with that as opposed to developing the narrative and fleshing out the characters beyond a one-dimensional level. When it's able to focus on the immediacy of the situation--the tripwire explosion, the German plane crashing after the dogfight, a sniper attack, a stunning trip through a bombed-out town engulfed in flames that looks like something out of APOCALYPSE NOW--1917 is firing on all cylinders and has moments of undeniable brilliance. But the pseudo-"real time," single take illusion also means there's a lot of walking and talking. And walking. And more walking. And the sense of urgency is never really properly conveyed--beyond "we need to get to Col. McKenzie"--because the time element is never made clear. If the movie runs two hours, then tell them "You have two hours." The cut-to-black when a character is knocked out cold seems to serve the dual purpose of maintaining the one-shot ruse while also allowing Mendes to explain away some of that real-time issue, in a sense negating the whole single-take idea in the process. In the end, it all boils down to this: yes, it's technically impressive and it's obvious that a lot of intricate planning went into it, but why? Why tell this story this way?

MacKay (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) and Chapman (GAME OF THRONES) are fine, as good as they're permitted to be since they seem like little more than players in a WWI video game (the sequence where MacKay's Schofield gets caught in some DELIVERANCE-style rapids after going over huge waterfall that appears out of nowhere seems to belong in another movie, as does his shoddy-looking avatar that jumps in the water). Brief support is provided by continuous big-name cameos just like the WWII movies of the 1960s--in addition to Cumberbatch, Madden, and Firth, Mark Strong also appears, perhaps part of a package deal with Firth as they've seemingly appeared in more movies together than Abbott & Costello. Even with numerous standout moments and earnest performances by the leads, 1917 still doesn't even have the power of a 90-year-old relic like 1930's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. And forget comparisons to PATHS OF GLORY, a film whose anti-war rage still has a seething resonance over 60 years later. I may sound like I didn't like 1917. It's a good movie, but it could've--and should've--been a much better one. Make no mistake, it's gonna clean up at the Oscars because it's a safe pick that everybody can get behind. But it'll be one of those Best Picture winners that just doesn't stick in the memory. When's the last time you heard anyone mention GREEN BOOK?

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