1917: Tech Epic

When Stanley Kubrick led his men down the trenches with a long tracking shot in Paths of Glory, he established a whole social and political universe. He followed his characters through time and space; he became master of their reality, as though there was nothing above its walls. 1917 uses his tracking shot, and more – it’s obsessed with it. It’s such an all-encompassing interpretation of it that it seems to treat it like new technology. It’s an obvious homage made somewhat silly by being played with the tone of a breakthrough, as though Kubrick didn’t realize it could be used for feature-length. There’s no amount of technical know-how that Sam Mendes misses from Kubrick’s film, and no amount of emotion that he fails to vacuum out of it.

The cinematographer Roger Deakins is Mendes’ automatic rifle: he’s shot so many times, it’s amazing that he hasn’t missed yet. To make this movie, which is as about the tracking shot as much as it’s about anything, required Deakins. He plays the main role in the film so convincingly that he has single-handedly brought it to victory at all the awards ceremonies. 1917 is not being praised as a work of great emotion or narrative but as Deakins' vehicle. The film is presented as a virtuoso visual monologue, like a one-man play. Yet these shots, ungrounded from editing or drama, can only sell themselves. They are shots that beget shots. Deakins presents intriguing sights that may even stop your breath from all the meticulous craftsmanship that went into them. But they're like a clock without a face – beautiful but robbed of function.

The two soldiers in 1917 have faces that are hard to recognize, but the film impresses on the audience a feeling that they could be any soldier. They are as immemorable as those faded photos of the faintly familiar creatures losing their minds at the bottom of holes in all those clippings on the History Channel. Mendes tries to take WWI out of the stage of history and into the gutter. To reduce a war of great men making great claims to such a pair of faces is a feat of great empathy, an impression of a world theater worthy of Goya, at least on paper. It could have revived the idea of war through its scenery of human horror, a world of terrible problems all in the perspective of one frightened face. The problem with that intention is that the technique with which the film was made keeps the emotions completely separate from the action. I was more worried for the cameramen than the characters.

Empathy requires recognition and clarity. And in 1917, I often felt like a stranger in a History Channel land. The film never leaves the process of its meticulous technology behind far enough to make room for its world to live in front of it. Deakins keeps shooting, shooting, shooting like a crank man on safari and no one stops him; the film that results is reenactment-happy. There are frank closeups when the camera is in its monumental swing from one axis to the other and intercepts a face, but most of the time the viewer is a passenger in this movie, riding sidecar. If I could have ended the war by remembering a character's name, we would have lost. Instead, I remember shots or "shot."

The issue with 1917 is not the director’s obsession with “being there” but that his attempt to achieve it denies the film the art of editing. By pretending that it doesn’t need an editor, or that cutting has no role in how movies convince the viewer to play a part in them, 1917 falls well below Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan used time itself to tick us along through an expression of a feeling, a war-in-time, one that was clicking hot in your hands from start to finish. But this technique doesn’t have to be so broad and big. Son of Saul used many shots similar to those in 1917 to convince the viewer that time was passing in reality, to enclose and almost suffocate them. But it built its feeling on smallness and peripheral tragedies. By taking any chance to make a moment bigger, 1917 misses the purpose of the same technique.

Its problem isn’t that it views life as one shot long but that it views everything in that life as a monument to it. Every moment in this film is eventful, each leading to an evocation of status or purpose. After a brisk walk, a speech will follow, or a tragic accident; a quiet moment must be followed with a bomb. The film is caked in realism, the kind that calculates the amount of water a human body would retain after floating in water for six hours to deliver a realistic image. Yet, Deakins interprets every realistic moment in 1917 with so much self-importance that it could be sculpted into a museum mural. It tries to fashion the real world into an essay. It’s a flag-planting in reality drag.

Since every moment is like this, none of them seem to weigh more than others. Consider the climactic run over the trench, with the camera finally in front of the hero. It’s such a blisteringly long journey from the first time the camera shutters open to that moment that it makes no sense that it’s in the trailer. Yet, it’s difficult to feel that the film is “spoiled” or dramatically deflated because of that shot. This is a telling symptom of the film’s problem with dramatic investment, which replaces an emotional structure with technological obsession. It makes the film immune to spoilers, like “revealing” the victory mural in a war museum before you’d read the display about how the war started.

Whenever there's an opportunity for a small moment (the soldiers find a derelict cottage in the middle of a warzone – a memorable image that could have led to an iconic scene), the moment gets going to something big and important, such as a plane crash and a casualty. This is especially evident in the way the film treats the survival aspect, which should be central to its goal of gritty immersion but instead feels like an afterthought.

The survival element of 1917 hits hard in moments, yet it doesn’t add them to its arc. Mendes dressed his Bond films as broad yet realistic blockbusters and proved how suited he was to a franchise where you could get away with untidy details. In 1917, emptying a water canteen to flush out someone’s eyes should lead to someone being thirsty later, yet it has no consequence. The audience members who are thrifty soldiers may be worried but needn’t be. Another moment: the film goes out of its way to make us wince when someone cuts their hand on barbed wire and then accidentally sticks it in a rotting corpse. But that wince in that moment is all that comes of it since his hand never bothers him again, makes him lose his grip, or develops gangrene. It’s a moment of shocking reality, like a blurb in a documentary about something awful. The film then acts like it has no use for it. It was just one historical detail among many, in the end.

The corporal the film follows is reluctant to go at first and by the end has a sociopathic disregard for his own life to complete the mission. This is an arc forged from hardship: if it’s the heart of the movie, I’d say it looks good on display but has no real function. The character actors that facilitate their journey on either side (including Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth) appear to be in a more interesting film. Though our corporal dodges enemy fire in ruins lit by flares as the camera zooms along its track, he never seems in legitimate danger. People are on motorcycle, in rivers, running across fields of wire and plains of bones, yet it always feels like a controlled environment. 1917 has been touted as an immersive experience but its purely functional structure pulls me straight out. Every second was like a demonstration of the devices that made it: the flares hit the surface of a set, as the camera moves along a track whose movement you can feel. Watching the film feels like you’re watching its own “making of” documentary. I have never been more aware of the presence of a camera in any film where this was not the point (such as Cloverfield).

After a hundred years of trying to overcome the technology demo and craft narrative from the art of montage, Mendes seems to want to make a new version of the demos, to “astound” and “amaze,” as people were when filmmaking was technology rather than art. Unlike Dunkirk, where the soldiers’ anonymity faded into the backdrop of a meticulous montage of events, 1917’s schematic needed a strong sense of character to carry the load of its technology. There’s a wonderful scene in a derelict waiting room in the occupied French villa; our corporal stops and finds a woman with a baby that isn’t hers. He rests for a while and gives them milk. It’s not only one of the better scenes – it’s one of the only “scenes.”

By this point, the impossible time crunch on his mission has been made so abundantly, repeatedly clear that the audience’s natural reaction is to fidget: “Get a move on!” It becomes clear after a while that if he stops for too many movie scenes, he’ll never make it in time to the final set-piece on the field. For a filming strategy that would seem to imply an elongated sense of time to reflect the hopeless longevity of the war it’s about, 1917 has the opposite effect. It’s one-shot-long but forces the viewer to feel impatient about it. Not content to be impressive, Mendes wanted to make it feel impressive, as though having only one shot would automatically be viewed as an achievement rather than the limitation it clearly is. He’s convincing but not ingenious, which would convince the audience that it was easy, not hard. This one is one and done.

This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, January 26, 2020

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures

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