‘1917’ and the epic emptiness of war in film [Review]

1917 and the Epic Emptiness of War in Film

★★½

When I was just a kid, I remember seeing Forrest Gump, a film that most of have seen at one point in our lives. Tom Hanks’s portrayal and Robert Zemeckis’s film of a man lost in time, lost at war, and lost in love looked less at the spectacle of war and more at the specificity of this one man’s journey. Since then, in truth, I haven’t seeked out movies depicting war outside of the so-called classics, like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket. The rest of the war movies came to me due to awards buzz and subsequent success, like The Hurt Locker, American Sniper, and Dunkirk.

None of these films impacted me like Forrest Gump. In all fairness to these films, I watched the majority of them when I was either too distracted, too uninformed, or too young. At those ages, film stood as a way to pass the time, rather than a medium to now analyze and critique. Hollywood’s newest war drama, 1917 from director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty), has taken awards season by storm, becoming the shiniest piece of candy in the shop and the pearl of critics and audiences alike. 

In terms of technical achievement, 1917 deserves every nomination and award it can muster. The one-shot method of cinematography should give the beloved Roger Deakins another Oscar win, and you feel like you’re on this journey with the two young, British soldiers. Played by George MacKay and Dean Charles-Chapman, these Lance Corporals embark on a messenger mission to a group of soldiers heading into a trap, one of which is Lance Corporal Blake’s (Charles-Chapman) brother, giving us a glimpse of Richard Madden with little time left in the film. 

1917 and the Epic Emptiness of War in Film
source: Universal Pictures

Due to the camera’s constant movement, we walk with these boys, then run with them, even dying with them when the time comes. Deakins’s work provides an immersive experience, an epic one enhanced when seeing 1917 on the big screen in a dark and crowded theater. Only one distinguishable cut occurs in the film, after Corporal Schofield (MacKay) falls down a flight of stairs and knocks out, only to awake in the middle of the night with a ticking clock and a bloody back of the head. Other than that, this nearly one-take film looks seamless, and for the most part, gorgeous. 

The spectacle of war remains in the forefront, as the men wade through dead bodies, bunkers, and finally a massive battlefront. Deakins, who deserves a writing credit on this film, and Mendes show the macro toll of war on a micro scale through the eyes of two (but mostly one) soldiers. MacKay stays at the center of it all in a performance that won’t be given enough recognition but will be remembered for its quietness, along with the boyish naivete of his face and the hardness of his eyes that develops over the course of the film. 

The film features some moments that can be labeled as “traditional emotional” with the swelling of music, the men in uniforms resigning to their feelings, and the death of men, as well as innocence. Unfortunately, these moments felt empty in the grand scheme of the war. These moments are not hinting, but telling you, “This is the time to be emotional. Start crying now!” Subtlety falls away, the dialogue becomes heavy-handed, and our connection to these characters feels one-sided. By the end of the film, the audience has seen these characters through hell, but we still know very little about them. It became tough to believe that any of this mattered, and if my care for the corporals was heartfelt or manufactured. 

1917 and the Epic Emptiness of War in Film
source: Universal Pictures

If 1917 sweeps the Oscars, it won’t be surprising. The Academy has long rewarded war depictions. Though Dunkirk disappointed in its awards campaign, the buzz surrounding Mendes’s film is real. The accomplishment is laid bare for all to see, but for all this impressive filmmaking, the story, like that of Dunkirk, doesn’t provoke, emote, or stick into the corner of your mind like other films this year. Looking past the technical elements, you find a film that struggles in moments of raw emotion, putting the merry-go-round of British talent in to distract you from its lackluster dialogue and surface characters. 

I’ll always prefer films like Forrest Gump to films like 1917. We live with Gump, while we just pop in with Schofield. Unfortunately, we don’t see how all of this affects Schofield like we do with Gump. We don’t see what happens after the one-take ends and the bodies are cleared. We’re too focused on the pileup, on the mission at hand. We keep looking at the spectacle instead of the faces of those running so we can see movie magic. 

If the smoke clears and Mendes stands on stage at the end of the night, it will be a win for technical and athletic filmmaking, a win for a solid film with solid actors, and a win for empty epics pretending to be full of emotion. The swell of the music got the best of us once again.