'1917' is more technical marvel than emotional storytelling

Brad Keefe

Sam Mendes has had an interesting career as a filmmaker. It’s hard to imagine the poster for his World War I epic “1917” touting that it’s “from the director of ‘American Beauty.’”

Mendes was also a famed stage director prior to “American Beauty,” but his pivots since then include rejuvenating the James Bond series with “Skyfall” and “Spectre.” That’s the Mendes to expect here.

But “1917” isn’t just any war movie. It’s an ambitious cinematic exercise that plays out in one continuous shot (or, rather, a film that hides its edits to appear continuous).

Ultimately, this is both a blessing and a curse for a movie that will be remembered more for its technical achievement than for its emotional impact.

Young British soldiers Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are given a precarious mission in hostile territory. They’re charged with crossing several miles of enemy territory to deliver an important message to the front: A planned major attack is actually part of a German trap.

Further motivating Blake, his brother is one of the soldiers on that front. With hundreds of lives on the line, the two men set out alone across the front.

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After its Golden Globes win, “1917” moves up among the Best Picture Oscar contenders, and that makes sense in a Hollywood that loves to celebrate its own audacity.

The cinematography by the great Roger Deakins is without a doubt the film’s greatest asset, with a hand-held perspective that puts viewers in the trenches in ways that capture both the slog and the terror of the battlefield.

This coupled with the single-take construction makes for moments of earned tension and narrow escape that are meant to get the heart pounding.

But telling this story in real time has some real downside. The emotional connection with our lead characters is never fully built, and the larger scope of the conflict gets lost.

The film is often successful at delivering the realism, but it gets caught in showmanship to a point that it often feels like an extended video game cut scene. In other words, “1917” often seems built more to wow audience than make them feel. And it may well have been a better film set around extended cuts than fully committing to the one-take gimmick.

There’s no doubt that it’s an achievement meant to be seen on the big screen, but I’ll be pretty disappointed if this one is crowned Best Picture.

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3 stars out of 5