Although I would be hard-pressed to describe the World War I drama “1917” as controversial, it certainly had its share of detractors. The “gimmick” of the seemingly continuous one shot is just that to them, as two young British soldiers traverse a hellscape of trenches and death at every turn.
You spend the first few minutes marveling at the technique of director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, and puzzling over the seemingly thousands of details that had to be kept straight. Every actor and prop on cue, in the right place, doing the right thing at exactly the right time.
The mind boggles at the logistics of it all.
But for me, that period quickly faded and I just became engrossed in the experience. This is old-school “you are there” filmmaking, where the camera puts you in the shoes of the characters and you experience their peril step-by-step alongside them. So I stopped thinking about the technique and focused on the tale.
Others couldn’t. The most common complaint I heard was that it felt like watching an avatar in a video game, except you couldn’t control them.
That’s fair enough. Certainly this is not the sort of movie that focuses on characterization. I think casting relatively unknown actors in Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay was a deliberate move to make them feel like Everymen. Still, during the course of their journey we do learn a little about their interior worlds, such as that one yearns for home while the other went back there on leave and couldn’t wait to return.
Their mission: bring word to a unit cut off far beyond the front line that their attack planned for the next morning is a trap laid by the Germans. If they fail, 1,600 soldiers are doomed to die, including a lieutenant who is one of the men’s brother.
A few recognizable actors show up in supporting roles: Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Colin Firth. These cameos act as touchstones to the larger world, reminding us that there is more than blasted holes in the ground filled with bloated bodies.
There is surprisingly little violence in “1917.” Mostly we are witnessing the after-effects, as flesh and steel are ripped apart like the fallen toys of the gods. We feel humbled, repulsed, occasionally joyful and very, very much alive.
Often big-name filmmakers tend to eschew video bonus features, especially for high-toned awards contenders -- “letting the film speak for itself” and all that. I’m pleased to say Mendes and company did not do this.
There are two separate feature-length commentary tracks, one by Mendes and on by Deakins. There is of course a documentary on the logistics of the one-shot, 360-degree format and how it was executed. Mendes also hosts his own featurette in which he discusses his personal connection to WWI. Other features include:
⦁ “The Music of 1917”
⦁ “In The Trenches”
⦁ “Recreating History”