War films regularly find filmmakers obsessed with the experiential, leaning into some element of the form that places the audience in the position of soldiers on the battlefield. Apocalypse Now pioneered stereo sound that surrounded the audience in the chaos of airfare attacks. Saving Private Ryan combined its painstaking authenticity with a first-person visual point of view. More recently, Dunkirk edited what was separate strikes on air, water, and sea into a single concurrent narrative to present the multi-pronged efforts of war as a unified event. And now Sam Mendes arrives with the surprisingly rare World War I film 1917 to tell the story of one daring mission in real time, shot to appear as an unbroken take. It succeeds in strides, but makes for a disappointing experience beyond the stylistic gamble.
What 1917 lacks that helped its predecessors’ creative ingenuity connect on a deeper level is a propulsive sense of narrative plotting and a richer connection to the human spirit. It sets off two young British soldiers, Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) across no man’s land and towards the front lines where the German forces have set an elaborate trap, endangering some 1600 soldiers including Blake’s brother. But Mendes moves indecisively between set pieces, meandering as if 1917 doesn’t know how to develop the interior stakes of its grand scenario.
In terms of largely stitching together shorter shots to appear as an extended take, the film succeeds just fine. But the concept isn’t enough to sustain tension or create a sense of intentional pacing. Instead the film languors between its showier bits, some of them quite impressive indeed, without enriching our understanding of its characters or the less cinematically explored particulars of WWI battle. There’s much room for your mind to wander, especially in the film’s first half, reverting the film’s execution of concept to feel a bit like you’re watching someone else play a high-end video game.
Where the film truly inspires awe is in the hands of master cinematographer Roger Deakins. His mastery of light and shadow gets to be on full display, but there is also a mind-bending dexterity to how his camera inhabits Mendes’ spaces that never operates as you anticipate. Cascading over ponds, hesitant to far-off danger, alert to the unassailable beauty of nature, he creates a visual experience that feels natural and instinctual in the face of an approach that would normally elicit showy artifice. The soul of the movie is his.
A series of increasingly distracting cameo appearances of famous faces populate the higher military ranks throughout Schofield’s journey, from Andrew Scott as its most ingrained and best to Benedict Cumberbatch as the gimmicky worst. Much of the issue in terms of connecting on a human level is that places the film on the uncharismatic MacKay. The actor has often been either a vacant presence or a sore thumb elsewhere, and here he feels like a bit of a cipher. You cling something to latch onto besides the images in 1917, and it never really materializes.
With a script from Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, 1917 becomes limited in its capacity for something visceral without deeper established roots in its characters. It’s closing catharsis comes a bit stunted, leaving an effect that should linger longer than it ultimately does, even if it provides a small sample of what the film had been lacking throughout. Perhaps the film is an admirable and adequate accomplishment of its technical goals, but it can’t help but disappoint to its potential to marry Mendes’ spiritual and formative gifts.