The good news: Spielberg has finally taken a break from WWII movies. The bad news: now he’s going to wring every drop of blood from WWI. His Dreamworks production company has just served up 1917, with a Gallipoli-meets-Saving Private Ryan plotline co-written and directed by the smart and tasteful Sam Mendes. Et tu, Sammy? How about all you straight boomer-guy directors stop BSing about how war films “serve to remind us of the horrors of armed conflict” and just admit you get off on the spectacle of it. On the strategies and the machines and the heroics…and the death.
Yes, military recruitment commercials go to pains to present modern soldiering as akin to mastering a video game, but we all know that it still involves brothers and daughters and friends on the ground getting killed, maimed or psychologically damaged. Does a film showing how comparatively primitive early 20th-Century warfare was move the needle in any direction?
Trailer overkill has us entering 1917 knowing the full measure of the plot: It’s WWI, infamous for trench warfare, and two young English soldiers are charged with hand-delivering a message to a battalion across enemy lines, a message that could prevent 1600 men, one of whom is the brother of one of our protagonists, from being slaughtered in a German trap. The only thing we don’t know going in (unless you saw Gallipoli) is if our two boys succeed, which, based on these filmmakers mumbled and disingenuous messaging, is beside the point. War is ugly, all you lot back at home, and it’s ugly whether you win or lose.
Before we can say “Billy, don’t be a hero!”, our boys are off, pushing their way through the narrow trenches, which isn’t made any easier by the steadycam operator on their heels. 1917 was sold to us on its technical virtuosity, on how the movie is one continuous shot following our actors ‘real time’. Well, sorry for the spoiler, but the technique is not done any more innovatively than we’ve seen already in movies like Birdman. There are plenty convenient moves past vertical elements to allow for unseen cutting, and at one point the movie knocks out one of the kids so it can use a minute of black screen to represent the passing of several hours.
It does all look fantastic. This is Sam Mendes, of American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, so the cinematography and production design are both so good they actually distract from the effort at realism with the grime and the gore. There are parts that feel more like the boys are on a tour of environmental art installations than a war zone. The German trenches are built of board-formed concrete walls worthy of Le Corbusier and sandbags stacked so perfectly it looks like an over-zealous Gap manager just passed through. A scrapyard of abandoned weapons has an undulating wooden path through mounds of huge artillery shells, the brass still shiny. And I have never seen a village so artfully bombed out as the one here. Throw down an Oushak rug and stretch a gauzy sun shade and you’re on the cover of Elle Décor.
Along with the highly-crafted look, we get action that is meant to not just impress us with the one-shot conceit, but to give us the experience of a theme park ride, because Speilberg. I can already hear the Tom Hanks intro VO: “But this isn’t Star Wars, ladies and gentlemen, this was a real war!” Our heroes go through the following on what is supposed to be an afternoon in a five-mile stretch of Northern France: barely escaping a collapsing tunnel (holy Indiana Jones!); running from a crashing plane that decides to crash exactly where they’re standing (Indy again!); ambushed frequently by German soldiers popping out of nowhere (yikes!); swept up in rapids and carried over a waterfall (oooh!); climbing over rotting, bloated bodies to get to shore (gross!). It’s all effective as far as keeping you engaged, especially the incredibly-choreographed sprint through a swarming battalion amidst explosions (the money shot from the trailer), but is it all taking us anywhere we haven’t been in 50 other war movies?
This is a nostalgic war picture produced by Dreamworks, so some soldier will joke about another soldier’s mother fellating him. One will come across a lovely French girl hiding in a bombed village. Someone we like will miraculously escape every bullet fired directly at him so he can return home to the people in the faded sepia photograph he keeps close to his heart.
And another we like will die a heroic death, the kind of death that endlessly fascinates the men who make these movies. Here’s a thought for your hundreds of millions of production dollars, guys: make movies about how we STOP wars, instead of forever wallowing in everything that’s so awful about them.
1917 is currently in theaters nationwide.
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