1917 - Can the technical prouesse take over the emotional stakes ?
Updated: Apr 7, 2020
Before even coming out in the UK, 1917 snatched Golden Globes wins which set it out to be one of the favourites for awards season. Is there a better way for a film to start its release than already rumored to be a future modern classic ? The potential of the film seemed endless.
During the WW1, two young British soldiers are sent in the enemy lines to warn another group of the british army to postpone their attack on the Germans because they are running into a trap. The lives of 1600 men are at stake. The two heroes have a little less than a day to accomplish their mission. As the pair leaves, the countdown begins. For a plot build on emergency and time limits, it stretches out more than necessary. The characters are distracted quite easily. The young men visit the trenches of the German army and almost die because of their curiosity. Their journey is quite uneventful until they reach an abandoned farm where a German plane crashes soon afterwards. One of them dies and the other is the only one able to save his deceased friend's brother and avoid a tragedy. The stakes are higher than before. But once again, the same thing happens. The hero tends to dwell on the way and any sense of danger and emergency is lost quite quickly. If the hero does not hurry or keep it on his mind, how are we supposed to feel it ? We never see the others so we do not know how much times he has. There is not much sense of time. It is important for the audience to get a sense of time and space to be able to keep them on the edge of their seat. Because we know as much as the hero, we don't know if there is a risk of him falling short, or if he has gone the wrong way. It feels like the film has begun as this race against time but developed into a statement about the reality of war. Even then, every time the hero is at risk, an epic music comes out of thin air. It ruins the world created based on real sounds instead of epic soundtrack. It also tells you that the hero is going to get out of it alive. This film does not need to emotionally manipulate the audience in the grand moments. The closest we stay to the protagonist's experience, the better it is and the more we care. It is taking you out to have an artificially added music and reminds you of the fact that it is fiction and you're not really there. It emphasizes the camera work but plays against the story and the emotions the film is trying to convey.
The cinematography is superb. The one shot impression they manage to create is a technical tour de force. Although just as the elements previously mentioned, it feels like it takes over the story. No matter how impressive it is, the technique should enhance the story and the experience not take over it. Many times, the hero is followed by the camera from behind running, walking or from the side. This choice does not allow the camera to get as close to the protagonist's face. One of the rare times is when there is a fade to black (and therefore a cut) and the shot opens on him opening his eyes. In terms of camera work, this film is stuck between trying to offer an immersive experience to the viewer but also going by what people are used to - maybe to attract as many people as possible ? With a huge figure as Roger Deakins at the cinematography, it could have been bolder.
Except for the created impression of one long uncut shot, 1917 is a standard war film that happens to be one of the rare Oscar standard film this year. The technical prouesse does not amend for the lack of emotion. The story is too lose to feel like there is danger and the music gives it away. The small moments with natural sound immerse the audience in this war before taking it out with a splash of epic soundtrack that makes us realise it's not real.
1917 is a good film, a technical prouesse but a bit shallow and emotionless. Action takes over emotion. One of the greatest scenes between the hero and a French woman could have been this great emotional scene. However, none of them speak the language of the other but still fully understand each other. Awkwardness was missing in this scene. The communication was too easy to be believable. Just as this scene, the whole film is full of potential that is never really fulfilled. Will it go on winning almost every award under the sun? Probably. But that says more about the quality of the films produced than the film itself.