'1917' Is A Mind-Boggling Technological Achievement — But Not A Great Film
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. After winning the Golden Globes for best motion picture, drama and best director, the new war movie "1917" opened wide this past weekend to a strong box office, and on Monday, it received 10 Oscar nominations. Set over two days during World War I, the movie follows two English soldiers trying to stop an impending attack and save the lives of their comrades. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "1917" has been widely praised as a mind-boggling technical achievement. It certainly is, though I'm less convinced that it's a great movie. Inspired by his grandfather's experiences as a soldier in World War I, the writer-director Sam Mendes has made a harrowing combat picture by way of a suspenseful, beat-the-clock thriller about two British soldiers on a dangerous mission in northern France in April 1917. And he has shot the movie in what looks like one long continuous take, with no visible edits except for one dramatic cut to black midway through.
This visual gimmick - call it the one-take wonder - has a long Hollywood history. Alfred Hitchcock famously used it in his 1948 thriller "Rope," and in recent years, advances in digital technology have made it easier for filmmakers to simulate the illusion in movies like "Birdman." You can understand why Mendes chose the technique for "1917." He and his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns tell a lean, pared-down story in something close to real time. He wants to erase the distance between you and his characters to make you feel as though you're right there with them in the trenches and on the battlefield.
The soldiers are both in their 20s Dean-Charles Chapman plays Blake, and George MacKay plays Schofield. Their mission is to travel across miles of bombed-out French terrain to deliver an urgent message to a nearby British battalion, warning them that what looks like a German enemy retreat is, in fact, a deadly trap. Raising the stakes even further, Blake's older brother is a member of that battalion, and he and 1,600 other men will almost surely perish if the attack proceeds.
Blake and Schofield receive their orders from a general played by Colin Firth. He's one of several well-known English actors - including Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Andrew Scott, famously known as the hot priest from "Fleabag" - who will pop up along the young men's journey to offer a few wry words of counsel. But for the most part, Blake and Schofield are desperately alone. Upon leaving the trenches, they soon find themselves in a no man's land that looks apocalyptic in its desolation, the camera never blinking as it follows alongside them.
In one especially tense scene, they stumble upon an abandoned German bunker, where an explosion occurs, temporarily blinding Schofield and forcing him to rely on Blake to guide him through the darkness.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "1917")
DEAN-CHARLES CHAPMAN: (As Blake) You keep hold of me. We need to keep moving. Come out.
GEORGE MACKAY: (As Schofield) I can't see. I can't see.
CHAPMAN: (As Blake) Whoa, stop, stop, stop. Stop. It's a mine shaft. But we'll have to jump. Now, come on. You're going to have to jump. Just jump.
MACKAY: (As Schofield) I can't. I can't see.
CHAPMAN: (As Blake) You need to trust me. Jump.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CHANG: The explosion in the mine shaft can't help but feel a little "Indiana Jones," which points to one of the persistent drawbacks of Mendes' visual approach. There has always been something a little too pristine and studied about his filmmaking choices, especially in domestic dramas like "American Beauty" and "Revolutionary Road." For all its visceral sweep and immediacy, "1917" has the same polished veneer. It's as if Mendes were trying to tame the Great War itself into aesthetic submission.
Although the images are elegantly composed and choreographed by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, the unblinking camerawork sometimes lends the movie the feel of an action-packed video game. Mendes' style can be as distracting as it is immersive. I kept wondering, how do they do that, and studying the frame to see where the cuts had been digitally concealed. The effect is to pull you out of the movie, rather than drawing you deeper into it.
The movie's secret weapon isn't its camerawork or its majestic orchestral score by Thomas Newman; it's the actors, who make for excellent company, even under their nerve-wracking circumstances. Dean-Charles Chapman is, first, willingly optimistic and then heartbreaking as Blake, a gregarious young dreamer who likes to tell stories about his home back in England. Schofield, as played by George MacKay, is a quieter, more reserved figure, traumatized by his recent experience fighting in the Battle of the Somme, which claimed more than 1 million lives and remains one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history.
Schofield has become deeply disenchanted with the very idea of war and the futility of all this endless carnage. Mendes clearly shares his disillusionment. The violence in "1917" can flare up without warning, but it always feels spare and purposeful, rather than bludgeoning an assaultive. The great French director Francois Truffaut once said there was no such thing as an anti-war film because it's in the nature of war films to valorize the spectacle of armed combat. "1917" at least steers clear of that trap. It doesn't glorify the horrors of war, though I do wish it spent a bit less time glorifying itself.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about a trove of secret Iranian intelligence cables and reports written by officers of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security. These documents reveal a secret history of the relationship between Iran and Iraq and how Iran's General Soleimani, who the U.S. recently killed, exercised his military and political power in Iraq. The documents were leaked to The Intercept. We'll talk with James Risen, The Intercept's national security correspondent, who formerly covered national security and intelligence for The New York Times. The reporting on these documents was published simultaneously in The Intercept and The New York Times. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we incorrectly say actor Andrew Scott is English. He is Irish.]
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Correction Jan. 21, 2020
In this story, we incorrectly say actor Andrew Scott is English. He is Irish.