Montag, 20. Januar 2020

Whose War Movie? The Rivalling Narratives of "1917"

© Universal Pictures International Switzerland

Warning: This article contains spoilers about the movie "1917."

Thanks to the privilege of having been sent a screener, I first watched 1917, Sam Mendes' World War I drama about two English soldiers having to warn a battalion about an impending German ambush, in the comfort of my own living room. But already as I was watching it, I knew I'd have to see the film – with its fêted and Oscar-nominated direction, cinematography, and production values – in a cinema in order to appreciate it as its makers intended.

It was only fair, not least because even though I'd liked it well enough the first time around, I found myself taking some issue with its narration and its much-discussed conceit of seemingly being composed of only two shots. (In actuality, it consists of far more, which were digitally spliced together in the editing room.) I wrote about these qualms here.

In any case, off I went to catch up on what my home cinema experience had made me miss. Obviously, it was an improvement, as any theatre experience is an improvement over the at-home projection. The sweep of Roger Deakins' intricate camerawork truly comes alive on the big screen, and it quickly became clear how my TV speakers were no match for the film's truly excellent sound design and Thomas Newman's vivid score.

© Universal Pictures International Switzerland
And I think 1917 works on its own terms, beyond the technical virtuosity. It's a highly immersive experience that ratchets up the tension of its protagonists' quest very elegantly, thanks in no small part to the excellent lead performances from George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman. Their earnest, unassuming turns prove perfectly suited to the script's deliberately vague characterisations, giving Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield more than enough humanity to make them engaging, but remaining opaque enough to drive home the point that in the end, war turns everyone into an expendable resource (more on that later). However – there was always going to be a "however," wasn't there? – the visit to the cinema also left me with a similar feeling as my living room viewing: I was impressed, but not enthused. And I think I can pinpoint why that is the case better now.

First, on the technical level, my initial impression – wariness seems a bit of an overstatement, but I can't think of a more subdued criticism – more or less holds: 1917 is a masterpiece of direction, choreography, blocking, cinematography, production design, costuming, all of that. But at the end of the day, it's an exercise – a collection of cinematic flourishes that every so often scramble their way into the foreground of an otherwise deeply human, strikingly immediate story.

The best example I can think of is when the two main characters are making their way to the German trenches and have to traverse a huge water-filled crater, which they do by edging along the side of it. In this moment, the movie goes out of its way to highlight its own handiwork: a wide shot of the crater from above is followed by the camera following the two soldiers down to the bottom. But instead of staying on their heels in a medium wide shot as they cross – signalling the audience's proximity to the moment's physical precariousness – Mendes and Deakins opt for another wide shot, with the camera hovering just above the water, panning past a decorative corpse topped with a crow, ostensibly designed to make viewers go, "Wow, I wonder how they managed that!" There's nothing inherently wrong with that – it's a beautiful scene – but it's very much the people behind the camera begging to be noticed, which comes at the expense of emotional immediacy.

© Universal Pictures International Switzerland
For me, this moment also marks a significant thematic break. Up to that point, I was fully immersed, in both of my viewings. Up to that point, 1917 is a bleak, tense, by turns claustrophobic and agoraphobic delve into the psychological hell that World War I by all accounts was. But as the protagonists cross the water and eventually make their way into a booby-trapped German bunker, the film becomes more tender, more expressly human, more invested in not being about the horrific folly of "The Great War" so much as about Blake and Schofield, the two hapless soldiers thrust into mortal danger at a moment's notice. Again, this is not a problem in and of itself – in fact, it's where Chapman and MacKay really start to shine. However, it's the first major indicator that Sam Mendes essentially aims to roll two stories about the war into one narrative – something the movie doesn't seem entirely comfortable with.

There is the story that dominates the first 25 minutes or so – let's call it the macro-historical one: war is hell; and its fighting and dying participants are mere pawns on a chessboard controlled by anonymous entities far above the fray. And then there is the micro-historical approach – the soldier's diary, the wartime poem, the letter home, the view from the front: every pawn of war is a living, breathing human who needs to make sense of what they are fighting for – an angle that reaches its tragic apex in Blake's death at the hands of a dying German pilot he attempted to help.

These two stories overlap, no doubt about that. War always begs the question what will be left of humanity both physically and spiritually after the fighting has ceased. And in isolation, these stories pretty much work: the grand scale of human misery is palpable in 1917, as is its impact on individuals like Blake and Schofield. But I think the movie has trouble putting these two strands together. A look at the ending seems especially instructive here, because this film has two of them – two thesis statements delivered after Schofield succeeds in his mission of delivering his message to one Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch).

© Universal Pictures International Switzerland
It starts with Mackenzie himself, whose few lines Cumberbatch delivers with infectious fury. He puts it bluntly: this latest attack may have been called off, but what of it? These 1,600 spared men will find 100 ways of dying by the end of the week anyway, and most of them will be a direct order from high command. It's interesting that this sobering analysis is delivered through a character who is framed as a combative asshole – making Cumberbatch the Caliban tasked with sneaking in the uncomfortable truths. (Mackenzie even has the facial scar to match.)

But why do we even need Calibans truth-telling about World War I in a world where Paths of Glory (1957) and Westfront 1918 (1930) exist? If I wanted to be cynical about it, I might say it's because 1917 is dedicated to Sam Mendes' grandfather and Mendes didn't want to memorialise him and his peers by deeming them helpless cogs in a brutal machine. The more charitable explanation – never mind the one more rooted in narrative necessity – is that the coldness of macro-history is arguably ill-suited to provide closure for the micro-history at play here. To put it in more concrete terms: it would be dramatically – if not thematically – odd to lump in Blake, a protagonist and the film's only named on-screen victim of war, with a hypothetical mass of hundreds of thousands.

© Universal Pictures International Switzerland
Thus, we get our second ending: effectively performing the film's move from macro to micro, Schofield passes scores of maimed soldiers to find Blake's brother (Richard Madden), who is stationed in Mackenzie's unit. He finds him, gives him the sad news of his brother's death, vaguely reassures him about its circumstances, and the two shake hands, the camera lingering on this protracted moment of camaraderie. It's both an echo and a curious vindication of the emotionally ambiguous stiff-upper-lip advice Mark Strong's broadly sympathetic character gives to Schofield after Blake is killed: "It doesn't do to dwell on it." The final image of Schofield clutching his family's photographs may hint at Mackenzie's darkness having gotten to him, but his handshake with the older Blake directly contrasts the Colonel's disillusioned distrust of hope and collective purpose.

While this thematic disconnect doesn't sink the film, I think it muddles it. For me, 1917 telling two parallel stories it doesn't quite manage to weld together – one of war, death, and damnation, one of friendship, determination, and survival – takes away from the impact it might have had if it had committed to either of the two approaches, though this obviously would have made for a completely different film. As is, I remain deeply impressed with the artistry of 1917, but I know I am less enthused than I could be.

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