For me, 1917 made two big mistakes right at the start, from which it would never be able to recover.
The first even before the start, the initial idea: a movie following two lance corporals on a one-shot styled overnight mission during the First World War. The main characters enlisted men who really look about 21? Love it, this is an excellent choice, this was a war of baby boys who only sparingly interacted with the there-and-gone officers on their sparrow-quick lives before they flew off or were shot down.
So the young lowly soldiers are good, relatively unknown actors playing them: good. But. A continuous take is chosen to generate tension through its restless, ever-hovering movement, this sense of always pressing on. This is so suited for a mission movie. But a mission movie is so not suited for World War I. This was a war literally entrenched. You went off to the Front, and proceeded to cower in a sopping ditch under shell fire until you either went mad or were blown up like the corpse-pocketed mud around you. This is a war known most for its endless bitter attrition, for its futile meaninglessness. Why were they fighting? No one knew. No resources were sought to be gained, no ideology opposed. You sat helpless and inactive in a trench as horror whined overhead, until you were told to go over the top and die. In the mental hospitals the wards were filled with men and officers paralyzed with psychosomatic limps and stammers, crushed by this sensation that they could not speak, they could not act. The lines held as the years dragged on and hope stagnated. In this war where if the bullets or the gas didn’t kill you the waiting would, there was no movement at all. And that is my problem with the very premise of this movie. A tracking shot heroic mission over enemy lines is a war movie idea pasted onto the one 20th-century European war where it makes no sense emotionally or historically. Why did you do this thing!
I’m frustrated and disappointed that this is what this movie was, because it would seem the filmmakers decided that depicting something more aligned with the reality of this disaster would not have been ~cinematic~ enough, a choice I feel both limited and dishonest. They clearly thought they had to come up with a way to generate action, get their leads out of the trenches, and this mission to reach another battalion would do the trick. So what they did is create WWI: The Video Game, and we just track along behind these two figures from set-piece adventure to set-piece adventure. An explosion, a plane crash, a side plot with a girl and a baby where you can conveniently use the object you’d picked up earlier, jumping into a rushing river and over a waterfall—“like an Indiana Jones adventure movie,” one of my friends described it later. Boo. Booo, I don’t like it! Instead of making a movie about World War I, they’ve just used it as an aesthetic backdrop for a simple rousing save-the-day story thematically disconnected from what was a long senseless bloody mess.
The thing is, it didn’t have to be this way. I know it, because I saw it, within this very same movie. This was 1917’s second irrecoverable mistake! To show me a glimpse of what I could have had! So early, in just the second scene, such as they are, was a sequence that felt true. First of all, it was far and away the best use of the tracking shot effect, both one of the most obviously technically impressive feats of camerawork in this, AND, actually aligned with the meaning of what was being shown! These combined to create such a powerful effect that another of my friends I was watching this with eventually just exclaimed softly next to me, overwhelmed at the sight we’d been watching: two young men weaving through the warren of a large British trench system on the Western Front in 1917. A continuous take here was in service to the story, its length capturing the incredible labyrinthian extent of these trenches full of doomed, muddy men, and its faintly dizzying, tiring movement conveying the grim surreality of this environment. We follow them until at last our corporals find not the person they were after, but the one who’s all they’ve got now. He’s all we’ll get, too. For this was when this movie made the enormous mistake, massive, of letting Andrew Scott play a WWI lieutenant.
He made his eyes look glassy. I don’t even know how you do that, but those too bright, too slack eyes are the first thing that hits you when he swings his head up with a movement like a hinge. You know as soon as you look at him: this is someone who has been down here for too long. His captain is dead, he informs us bluntly. The lower British COs fell so quickly in this war. They would go over the top first with their men and be cut down immediately by the guns, and there is also the macabre historical curiosity that the officers, pulled from England’s better-fed upper classes, were on average considerably taller than the enlisted men, and the German snipers learned to pick them out. Andrew Scott’s lieutenant is slight, wearing a beanie and a jacket not fully buttoned—he is camouflaged, and surviving. Frankly this could absolutely be why he has made it as long as he has. Because it is so apparent that he’s been lasting, and his longevity has come at a cost. It’s in those thousand-yard-staring eyes, his abruptness that also still rambles, this faintly dissociative gone-ness that permeates all of his performance. He is, distinctly, the only character in this movie with a sense of humor, a perfectly toned pitch-black haunted whimsey of exactly the type of the British soldiers who printed The Wipers Times. He blesses the corporals with a splash of whatever is in his flask crossed over their packs, and then drinks the rest as he bids them a bleak Godspeed on their suicide run, and then this phantom of the war is gone.
The problem is that Andrew Scott is so fucking good, that everything else fell apart around him, leaving him standing alone on the broken ground of the First World War movie that could have been.
You know it’s interesting to compare 1917 to Dunkirk, another recent expensively produced, beautifully shot British film about a world war with a large cast of both un- and very-knowns, and a conceptual approach to the way time is presented. But I think that, perhaps unsurprisingly, Chris Nolan, who has built his entire career on ticking clocks, had a more meaningful and cohesive thought working throughout his film about the relationship between time and an individual’s experience of war. When 1917 begins and the corporals are told they have to reach the other trenches by dawn of the next day, when the attack is scheduled, I realized that Sam Mendes wasn’t going to follow the unity of time implied by a single take. And sure enough, he doesn’t: at one point our point-of-view character is knocked out, and wakes up in the dark maybe eight hours later in a sticky pool of blood that has oozed from the back of his head. In fact, this transition marks the beginning of such a divergence from physical reality (contrasted to the much more realist style of the beginning of the movie—and much more affecting, if my and the rest of the audience’s reactions are any indication—where things like barbed wire and decomposing bodies felt horribly real) that I briefly wondered if we were to understand that he had died, or was dying, and all the rest of the movie was taking place in his head. However, the ending would not seem to support this.
What maybe would though is that the first thing our young soldier sees when he improbably scrambles to his feet, is the most otherworldly sight in the movie. Roger Deakins will win the Oscar for cinematography for the night sequence in the bombed out town lit only by slow white flares arcing overhead and a burning church in the middle, because it is one of the most gorgeous and striking visuals committed to film this past year. The stark sliding quality of the light reminded me immediately of the stunning Valkyrie & Hela scenes in Thor: Ragnarok, which is a compliment to 1917. And this means that once again, film will be honored for making the atrocity of war look beautiful. I wish so much that this one had been thoughtful enough for me to feel there was much to it beyond that.