Monday, January 23, 2023

1917 (2019)

Director: Sam Mendes                                 Writers: Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Film Score: Thomas Newman                      Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Benedict Cumberbatch & Colin Firth

Honestly . . . I’m not sure what the point of this was. In 1948 the great Alfred Hitchcock proved with Rope that a film shot to give the appearance of a single, unbroken take could be done—and that it wasn’t really worth the effort. The proof of that assessment is that no one has felt the need to do it again for decades. But in the last few years the idea has been taken out of mothballs, shined up, and like a glossy turd, has been presented to filmgoing audiences as if it’s some unique, cutting-edge technique. It’s not. And it’s still just as boring as it always was. 1917 is a World War One film about two British soldiers sent across enemy territory to another part of the front lines to call off a planned attack that the general staff has learned is actually a German ambush. The two soldiers are Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay. The two friends are called in for a meeting with Colin Firth, a general who informs them that recent recognizance shows an apparent German retreat is actually a feint to draw in British troops in order to ambush them. Telephone lines have been cut, and the only way to reach the distant part of the front lines is to go out across no-man’s land. The reason Chapman has been tabbed for the job becomes clear when he’s told his brother is going to be among the assault troops and the only hope of saving him from certain death is to successfully complete the mission.

The film was something of a pet project for writer-director Sam Mendes, whose grandfather served in World War One. Mendes has done some pretty impressive work in his career, beginning with American Beauty, in addition to films like Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road. To be sure, his work is heavily stylized as a rule, but with the added burden of the single-take gimmick—and it is most decidedly a gimmick—this film can’t sustain anything like basic cinematic artistry and is ultimately crushed under the weight of its own pretentions. The main problem is that, at the end of the day, the single-take gimmick simply isn’t cinematic. The story, however good it may or may not be as a story, winds up stripped of all cinematic grammar and not only does that fail to add anything to the story, in the process it jettisons everything that might have made the story great. There are no closeups, no cross-cutting, no ability at all for the editing to create tension and release, or even to allow the audience to stop and take a breath. No, as Maggie Smith said about a completely different subject in Downton Abbey, the “on and on-ness” of it is simply enervating. And because of that it doesn’t really qualify as a film anymore. The whole thing plays out like one, long pseudo-cinematic YouTube video of an unending screen shot from a video game.

The fact that this type of film is nominated for awards, and that people pay to see it, says a lot about the decline of motion picture art in the twenty-first century—and perhaps even more about the dimwittedness of modern audiences. It’s an abysmal time for cinema, and there’s little hope that it will ever recover. With absolute garbage like superhero movies, idiot teen (and now thirty-something) films that pass themselves off as comedies, trama-drama instead of genuine drama, and non-stop action films flooding the screens, there is no incentive anymore—much less the money—to make an actual, cinematic story. And story is really the key. Quentin Tarrantino has said that the one thing Hollywood used to be really great at, the best in the world in fact, was telling a story. Those days are long gone, however, and 1917 is a perfect example of why. It’s not a story. It’s a sequence—a long-ass sequence, to be sure, but little more than that. Without giving the audience time to stop and reflect; without time for the actors to narrate their feelings—the only way for the audience to know what they’re thinking; without the slightest effort on the part of filmmakers to actually use the cinematic language of editing, it’s not really a movie. And so in the end, what’s the point? 1917 might have been a good film, might even have been a great film. But with the gimmick of the single-take sucking the life out of it, it’s little more than a cartoon that debases not only the audience that watches it, but the honorable men who actually fought and died in the First World War. And that’s not something anyone should recommend.

No comments:

Post a Comment