Review: 1917

The dedication of 1917, which appears moments after the final scene closes, reads as follows: ‘For Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes 1st Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps., who told us stories.’ That final clause is meant to hit like emotional shrapnel. Who told us stories. But who retells these stories is a question worth asking; here’s another, how do they tell them? In the case of 1917, the answer to the first is simple: the person telling this one of many potential tales is that same Lance Corporal’s grandson, Sam Mendes. The answer to the second is thornier. Briefly, the film is the mission given to two young soldiers, Will (George MacKay), and Tom (Dean-Charles Chapman); their objective is reach a division intent on breaking the German Hindenburg Line and tell them to cancel the planned attack. Tom’s brother is one of the many who would perish if they fail. Because the current cinema is one dominated by spectacle, by visions of heroism belonging to those powerful, Lycra-arsed beings known as superheroes, many movies would like to be part of this dominant mode, even if the result is inappropriate. Well 1917 is a war movie for the superhero age, and if you throw in the unmistakable air of Call of Duty cutscenery to the mix, Mendes’s movie is inappropriate to a fault. Admirers of Roger Deakins’s airless, motiveless, pointless cinematography, designed to seem as though it’s caught in one take despite many visible joins and a cut to black that still makes no sense to me, will claim the camera’s constant following immerses a viewer into the experience of the first world war, puts the screen in intimate conversation with the brutality of life in the trenches. These admirers are wrong (Sianne Ngai defines the gimmick, accurately as pertains to 1917, as that which ‘work[s] too hard and work[s] too little’). It’s in conversation with itself only; in fact the camera never meaningfully interacts with either character or location. MacKay tries to carry himself with comportment but is defeated by the script’s many bromides too many; also, come on, he would have died: the combination of shock, concussion, fatigue, near-drowning and freezing is more than a body belonging to an actual person—not Captain America—could take. The film treads and treads and treads its way to an ending which believes it’s presenting a certain view while desperately undercutting the point through its casting. In the end—and what could be worse?—I have a feeling Michael Gove loves this movie.

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