Battle weary: The visually impressive 1917 never goes deeper

Sam Mendes’ 1917 follows two British soldiers racing against the clock to save their comrades from an ambush. Universal Pictures Sam Mendes’ 1917 follows two British soldiers racing against the clock to save their comrades from an ambush. Universal Pictures

In times of war, everything that it means to be human is out in the open. We cannot hide from the truth about ourselves. We must either live up to our morals or live down to our baseness. It’s what happens when our values as a society fracture, but in those cracks, the parts we have concealed or denied are in full view.

This is what makes war films so vital. It’s an opportunity to reflect on conflict in a controlled space, honoring those who lived it, learning its lessons while leaving it in the past. As the bellicose rhetoric gets louder and louder, we turn to film as one of the most important ways that we can contextualize the immensity of it all. Not specifically for the causes or geopolitics, but the sacrifice, compassion, and ingenuity that people show when there is no way to escape the devastation of conflict.

Sam Mendes’ 1917, fresh from its Golden Globe win for Best Motion Picture Drama, has its sympathies in the right place, and does its best to mine its one-shot presentation for maximum effect. (It is not actually one shot.) Bolstered by solid performances and impressive set pieces, you will come away with an appreciation for the chaos of battle and the struggle to do right amidst the muddy, directionless, amoral slog that was World War I. But 1917 frequently undercuts its potential by remaining tethered to a stunt. It is the opposite of immersive, leaving you more impressed with how it was made than what it has to say.

1917

R, 119 minutes

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

The story follows two British soldiers—Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman)—serving in northern France, who are tasked with carrying a vital message to a regiment that is unknowingly walking into a German ambush. They must deliver the note manually with no time to spare—if they fail, their comrades (who include Blake’s brother) will suffer massive casualties. Their journey takes them through fields of dead bodies, active battlefields, abandoned trenches, bombed-out remains of towns, and the deceptively peaceful French countryside. Through it all, the perspective never changes, one location bleeding into the next, furious combat erupting only a few minutes’ walk from total calm.

It is the smaller moments of 1917 that are its most effective, when it’s not trying to dazzle with the scale of its action. When Schofield and Blake first set out on their mission, they must work against the foot traffic of the trenches, crawling out into a field littered with corpses, telling a story all its own. These men were soldiers just like our protagonists, each with their own story, unsure of what awaited them around the next hill. Cinematographer Roger Deakins deftly communicates the soldiers’ state of mind; each location brings with it new colors, new staging, and the mood of the characters and filmmaking techniques follow in kind.

When 1917 places showmanship above storytelling is when it fails to live up to its potential. It is never boring or poorly made, but long, unbroken shots of running alone showcase the filmmaking at the expense of the characters feelings or what the scene is conveying. Mendes has the utmost respect for the sacrifice a soldier makes, but now that we are on the brink of a full-scale war, we need war stories that cut deeper, and do more than tether that sacrifice to a gimmick.

1917

R, 119 minutes

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal
Stonefield 14 and
IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema


Local theater listings

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056.

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213.

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000.


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G, 120 minutes

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

January 19

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