Given such a long resumé and so many working credits (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford perhaps my favorite), I had forgotten that Roger Deakins had taken on the cinematography for Blade Runner 2049 a couple years back. It’s a film that had many problems – casting, script, and ultimately pacing – but the posthuman look of its doomed ecologies was dazzling, and at least once during the viewing of 1917 (and immediately afterward), 2049 came to mind. This makes sense – Deakins is a magician at architecting and expressing our least-habitable spaces, and the weird pallid sub-reds of the night-burning village of Écoust-Saint-Mein in 1917, with its almost Martian airborne particulate, feel both alien and exalted at once. Light and dust, light and dust. And so much loam! This is the loamiest film I can recall, with a fetishistic indulgence of brown-grey sediment, embedded with indifferent bodies, protagonists stumbling and oozing through it all, while affording no sense of fertility or future fecundity – a ‘no-man’s-land’ down to the final sign.
In my most charitable reading, 1917 is a Roger Deakins film, and the succession of technical and production awards will bear that out, up to and including a near-certain Best Picture Oscar, along with awards for cinematography, production design and direction. Unfortunately, it’s something of an impoverishment to consign the general scope of direction to choreography and engineering, but much of this film is a slate of traveling salesman problems involving getting a shellshocked everyman to scramble from point A to point B, with a handful of large set-pieces as waystations. Much has been written about the technical achievement of the ‘continuous tracking shot’ – an increasing fixation among the Academy’s technical corps, despite early indifference to grander experiments like Rope, Touch of Evil or The Passenger – but this is more of an emulative conceit, and a war movie is an increasingly untimely and odd platform for this experiment, unless the dual-analog game perspectives of first- and third-person shooters were desired metaphors, to cater to a target audience.
In an even less charitable reading, I think this is a particularly low-concept film, with a thin and largely boilerplate script to fill gaps where the score does not muscle in, with low strings and vibrato, to motivate pathos or signify gravity. (It’s typically frustrating that this would merit an Original Screenplay nod over a text as inventive and original as Tarell Alvin McCraney’s High Flying Bird for example – this is nothing more than plug-and-play prose.) The focus on ‘immediate experience’ indulges the worst tendency to make depictions of war ambient, a kind of library music to accompany athletic trials cooked up by technocratic filmmakers obsessed by the trick shot or Birdman-style demo reels (“how did they pull it off?!”). The simplistic narrative that undergirds the stunt photography sets up the predictable ‘anonymous men do exceptional feats’ sham of history that justifies so much repugnant sacrifice, and the narrowness of this movie’s historical ambition relentlessly decontextualizes and depoliticizes, all the more problematic in an age of pestilent nationalisms and concentrated wealth, and given how infrequently WWI is treated in film a century on.
While handsome and vigorously paced, this is an otherwise conventional, conservative film – and its late-hour embrace by some critics and industry professionals feels almost like a reaction to the great many substantial but complex and difficult films of the past year or two. Even Dunkirk, perhaps the most recent analog to 1917, had a greater sense of character, scale and detail – even as it belabored its experiment in non-linear time, its vertigo was convincing, and it was unsentimental. 1917 still reaches for sentimentality with the pastoral, elevating the camera against one-tree vistas with a Malick-like lyricism, at moments when the director seeks to humanize and heroize at once. And in terms of finding terror and thrill in immersive, innovation filmmaking, in a context of combat and duress, I think last year’s Monos did this much more inventively – down to its own frantic river escape and underwater cinematography that was challenging and breathtaking.
No doubt, 1917 is a visually beautiful movie but one with a troubling and timid moral imagination. I respect Sam Mendes’ desire to memorialize his grandfather’s familial recollections – and he makes a convincing maze of the earth and lets the minotaurs loose – but at a time when we seem again at the cusp of military adventurism by fragile and jealous autocrats, 1917‘s dehistoricized action-without-reflection feels like the wrong thing to celebrate, and I was left unsettled and distant through much of the viewing.