1917 ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Sam Mendes' war opus is an expertly crafted but emotionally flat ride through the trenches.

I appreciated the engineering and logistics that must have gone into the making of 1917; I admired the risks that it takes and the regularity with which it pulls them off; I was impressed with the editing and surprised by a lot of set pieces.
All of this, of course, is a very roundabout way of saying I don't know if I actually liked it.

No man's land has gone quiet. The Germans are on the fun. An advance on the front line is planned first thing in the morning, but just a few miles away new aerial intelligence has arrived to suggest that the battalions involved are walking into a trap which could lead to the deaths of 1,600 infantry. Telephones are down and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean Charles Chapman in what will likely be his breakthrough role) is selected to get the message to the Colonel at the front and save his brother in a matter of hours. Dragged along for support is Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and what follows is their desperate trek through no man's land to deliver the vital communication.

The things that 1917 delivers, it delivers in spades. The spectacle and horror of war, the futility, the toll on life and landscape. These are the things I expected from the film. I expected spectacle, I expected horrors; one thing I did not expect was for it to have me considering the mechanics of film making in general. At least twice during the film I realised I had put my engagement with the story on hold to consider why something was or wasn't working in the moment.

When you make a film which centres around, what I'll maybe ungenerously call a gimmick (the one shot that really isn't remotely one shot) then you have to be pretty confident that your gimmick not only works, but works consistently. You are, essentially, making a rod for your own back. I think 1917 gets a good 85% success rate which sounds pretty great on paper but, for me, it felt like a near miss.

There is a scene where the messenger, hiding in a ruined village, accidentally intrudes on the hiding place of what appears to be the village's last inhabitant - a young girl, because of course it's a young girl. This is fine. It's not too clunky, but the engineering of a moment of pathos is pretty plain to see. That is until it's revealed that she's also been taking care of a baby for an unspecified amount of time with seemingly no appropriate food for it. The pure brazen unlikelihood of this situation twinned with a cheap 'baby = heartstring tug' was more than enough to snap me out of the film to consider what this scene was doing for the film and why the film had suddenly traded in the random chaos of reality for a more classically theatrical turn.

The contrivance of the film, and I use that word completely without judgement, is that the viewer is dragged along for the ride. The brutal realism, achieved primarily through the sense of immediacy cultivated by the single-shot technique, is its everything.
So if my suspension of disbelief is blown, even for a second, I'm pulled out of the movie and my engagement with the film has to take a little time to recover. Where other films can take a real beating on the consistency front and still be enjoyable, for a film which is reliant almost entirely on its gimmick to give its emotional peaks heft, this becomes a critical problem.

Relevent to this too, is how distracting I found the famous cameos. For those moments I was no longer watching a desperate struggle across no-man's-land, I was watching Mark Strong or Benedict Cumberbatch doing a war movie. It's a shame because the selection of relative unknowns Chapman and MacKay goes a long way to aid the incredible job they do of selling the camaraderie between the everyman troops. Many of the little interactions they have between each other and those they meet along the way hint at what could have been a very tightly knit and moving portrayal of the interdependency that is born of a fight for survival.

I have to reiterate that what the film does well, it does spectacularly well. It is a real ride and when you're in it, you are completely at its mercy. The depiction of the sheer unpredictability, injustice, terror and revulsion of war is one of the most believable I've experienced.
It's an incredible rollercoaster. But to me, nothing deeper than that.

Grade: B-