This review contains spoilers.
The stakes of “1917” (2019) are evident less than about 20 minutes into the film: General Erinmore (Colin Firth) tells Lance Corporals William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) that they must get a message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) regarding an attack he is planning against the Germans. According to Erinmore, new aerial observations show that Mackenzie’s forces — 1,600 men — would be walking into a German trap. And for Blake, it’s personal: his brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake (Richard Madden) is a part of those 1,600 doomed men. With the audience strapped in with Schofield and Blake as they race against the clock, “1917” takes off.
It’s an exhausting introduction to a rather simple story. From a tense beginning, the plot then travels from point A to point B with some obstacles and feeble plot points — deaths, close calls, one woman who’s literally only there to clean Schofield’s wound and remind him of his family (who we don’t learn about until the last minute of the film) — that all lead to a completed mission. And throughout all of this, “1917” constantly reminds you of its stakes: 1,600 men, Blake’s brother. But it never makes these stakes feel palpable.
In what might be the film’s most important moment — Blake’s death and Schofield’s newfound courage to carry on the mission for his fallen friend — we should feel some sort of weight. There’s none; it’s not upsetting or surprising. It’s lukewarm. Audiences learn very little about Blake before his death: he has a brother and likes to tell funny stories. These in no way make Blake feel relatable, interesting or worthy of carrying “1917.” At least Schofield undergoes some sort of growth, but even he feels foreign to us. He’s just a messenger. The audience is more worried about him as a plot device than him as a character.
Rather than giving real depth to its story and characters, the film is a flex of technical prowess. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Director Sam Mendes isn’t focused on how we connect to the story or its thinness. He’s showing the audience what the camera can do. The biggest awards season conversation around “1917” is how its long takes make the film feel like one continuous shot. The long takes are broken up by clearly visible cuts and times when the camera veers away from Schofield and Blake.
It would be irresponsible to say that the “1917” isn’t gorgeous or a technical feat. Its cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking and the long takes are immersive. Combined with the score, the film has many rousing moments. And Mendes certainly doesn’t hold back from showing war at its most gruesome (although that’s not very different from many films in the war canon). There are plenty of dead bodies, gross moments — it’s impossible not to wince when Schofield accidentally shoves his bleeding hand into a giant mushy wound in the back of dead soldier — and gunshots.
But each of these moments just feels like a new level in a video game. When Schofield comes across a bombed village and has to kill a sniper, it’s almost like a mission in Call of Duty. This leads to a very important question regarding “1917”: what really makes this film compelling? Is it just its camerawork? What does “1917” do that a Call of Duty video game couldn’t do? This isn’t to say that every war movie needs to sell itself beyond being an Xbox game — although the war genre of media is arguably overstuffed nowadays — but it is to say that this story could be far more engaging if given more time, space and character development. It’s approximately two-hour runtime certainly prevents that.
We leave “1917” satisfied because Schofield did his job and the camerawork is masterful, but with very little more to say about the film. It’s a spectacle that never really gives us substance. This is what keeps the film from being great rather than good: just because the audience follows Schofield and Blake every step of the way — thanks to the long takes — doesn’t mean we identify or relate to them. It’s immersive, but not investing. Impressive technical work can’t be the answer when we ask why a film needed to be made. And that’s the problem with “1917.” It can’t provide a reason for why its story needed to be told.