We get so little popular art about World War I these days, especially in comparison to popular art about World War II, that I cherish almost any kind of halfway-well-made media about that war. Yet the last few years has brought us an unusually high number of pieces of popular media set in WWI, like superhero flick Wonder Woman, Peter Jackson’s amazing documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, and Sabaton’s power metal album, The Great War. So how does 1917 stack up?
It’s a good film but not a great one. It feels like people have been over-praising it for sure, but then again, I am glad to see such a film – with real artistic desires – get such praise, and such popularity. It’s not as good a war film focused on saving men rather than killing as 2017’s Dunkirk; it’s not as good a WWI movie as Sergeant York, All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, Gallipoli, or Lawrence of Arabia; and it’s not as effective in its “one continuous shot” gimmick as Birdman. This is because Sam Mendes is not on the same level as a director as Nolan, Hawks, Milestone, Kubrick, Weir, Lean, or Inarritu. That’s OK, though, because Mendes is a good director (just see American Beauty, Road to Perdition, or Skyfall), and he’s working with a great cinematographer, Roger Deakins, although I will also say on that point, Deakins is one of the only cinematographers who could pull off this kind of movie successfully, and yet Mendes doesn’t really play to Deakins’s strengths like the Coen brothers or Denis Villeneuve do. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has proven, while working with Terrence Malick, Alfonso Cuaron, and Alejandro Innaritu, that this one-shot gimmick can be effectual, but this is not Deakins’s strong suit as it is Lubezki’s, so . . . good but not great. The music and dialogue here are also kind of mediocre, plus the one CGI bit in the movie, over a waterfall, looks tacky as all get out.
1917 is getting popularity, and love, because it combines many tried-and-true war-movie-making elements into one film with that long-take feature that appeals to many film nerds today, plus a sort of video game format, as the characters progress from “level” to “level.” I must admit, I did find some of this distracting, and I kept thinking that each specific ingredient of the film has been done better. Yet this is a remix culture we’re living in, and when I think of 1917 in that way, Mendes has brought together a fairly impressive film here with a story in which Mendes pays tribute to his own grandfather, who told him stories that inspired 1917’s script, in a a rare kind of recognition it seems.
The extensive, period-specific details are great too. This is a good recreation of WWI and puts you there with the soldiers, gives the whole affair humanity, much like Peter Jackson’s documentary does. The acting helps too, especially from Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, often the only two people on screen, almost always excellent. Their stoicism and resolve ring true for me.
In the end, I definitely recommend 1917, especially if paired with They Shall Not Grow Old.