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'1917' Review: A Cinematographic Masterpiece With A Painfully Simple Plot

1917 is 2020's token war movie. The plot opens with British soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), resting in a field where they are stationed in France. They receive orders that they have until the next morning to relay a message to troops on the front line to stop an attack on the Germans. The British Command believes that the Germans are leading them into a trap and that withholding the attack would save countless lives, including the life of Blake’s older brother. 

The film is structured to be seen as one continuous shot, with the intention of immersing the viewer into the Lance Corporals’ perspectives. This practice emphasizes the cinematographic vision and filmmaking precision of cinematographer Roger Deakins and director Sam Mendes. However, whatever technical innovation the film excels at, it lacks in historical and political commentary. The focus of the movie rarely drifts from the action-filled journey of Blake and Schofield to offer any candid point of view of war. Unsurprisingly, the film features the horrors of war as the two soldiers struggle on their journey, but by the end of the film, there is just an overwhelming sense of having seen a memoir that depicts the violence of the battlefront. Interestingly, Mendes includes a note at the end of the film where he reveals that the story of 1917 is inspired by his grandfather who served in WWI. 

There are three main types of war movies, each with different goals. The first category consists of anti-war sentiment, including films like Full Metal Jacket and War Machine—two must-see movies. Films like these do not belittle soldiers, the horrors they go through, or their good intentions and bravery. What they do successfully point out the complexities of war—most importantly, the fact that no one ever wins in war. These films have the power of leaving the audience with the important sinking feeling that reminds us to be grateful and to question our world’s tendency towards violence.

The second type of war film patriotically celebrates soldiers’ heroism. This category includes movies such as Black Hawk Down and Hacksaw Ridge. These films revolve more around how individuals rise above life-threatening situations in the horrible landscape of war and express the humane qualities that restore our faith in us. These films are conflicting because while it is important to celebrate acts of heroism and selflessness, we start to tread into the territory of blind patriotism. It is then difficult to be objective about how we approach conflict when our priority is to appear heroic for the sake of our country. People can be misled to thinking that the only way to do good is to serve, but in reality, they are just paying for a skewed political perspective.

Finally, we have war movies like Dunkirk and 1917. Those that touch lightly on history and the dark sides of war but are mostly known for the cinematic qualities that make them stand out. What disappoints about these films is that those skills could transmit more powerful, meaningful messages by shifting focus to the effects of war outside of the battlefield. By telling the stories of starving children in the streets where they once played or of cities that are rebuilt over corpses, these films bring a new perspective from the eyes of the marginalized—those whose stories never seem to be told. Storylines should contain depth and complexity, asking viewers to contemplate their own lives, while interesting techniques should be skillfully used to enhance the greater narrative—not detract from it. This is especially true for films that seek to explore complicated subjects such as war, where passive viewership achieves nothing to develop the audience’s thinking on the matter. Though 1917 attempts to reveal something deeper about war and violence through its bold cinematography, it ultimately falls short in producing a movie that feels different from the rest.

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