Gimmick films are a pain in the ass, because the gimmickry that frames the production ultimately suffocates their effectiveness. Think of Robert Montgomery’s “The Lady in the Lake” with klutzy use of the camera as the narrator’s POV, the Ray Milland thriller “The Thief” that struggled without spoken dialogue or Lars von Trier’s “Dogville” and “Manderley” with their irritating bare-bones black-box theater settings – the respective gimmicks brought more damage than enhancement to these works.
Sam Mendes’ “1917” works on the gimmick of telling the story in what appears to be a single unbroken take. It is not the first time this gimmick was used in a film – Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark” got there earlier in 2002. And Mendes’ work is actually a series of very long takes that have been carefully stitched via digital trickery to give the appearance of a continuous shot – it is not until a truly crummy CGI effect late in the film that the artifice becomes obvious.
The problem with this production gimmick is “1917” quickly becomes monotonous. With its endless tracking shots and an excessive surplus of twists and turns, it is like watching a live-action video game without the consoles to direct the on-screen figures. Not surprisingly, the characters take on the one-dimensional aspect of a video game rather than the fully textured personalities that a film of this nature deserves.
In April 1917, a pair of British soldiers are tasked with delivering a letter to another British battalion at the far side of a field of conflict. The pair find their way through the horrors of the World War I battlefields, where men and machinery met their ruin in muddy, barbed wire-covered plains. Going too far into plot detail on “1917” is tricky, because of a significant plot twist midway through, but it can be revealed that the adventure turns into a grotesque exaggeration of Murphy’s Law – anything that can go wrong happens tenfold.
To their credit, Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner do a masterful job in recreating the visual horrors of World War I. In terms of visual presentation, the film rivals “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Paths of Glory” in recalling the gruesome environment of this conflict.
But the screenplay by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns offers a wobbly tale with situations that are either absurd (a biplane just happens to crash a few feet from the men) or clichéd (the lone cow survivor of the battle was lifted from “Gone with the Wind,” the beautiful young French girl helping the Allied cause had dozens of cousins in countless war movies). The two soldiers have relatively backstory and offer little in the way of identifiable personalities. Not helping matters are the dull performances by lead actors George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, who appear to have been chosen for their blandness – Mendes could have used stop-motion animated mannequins and no one would have known the difference.
“1917” has already picked up some awards as the year’s best film. If this is the best film of the year, I’d hate to imagine what the worst looks like.