Sam Mendes' 1917--about a pair of soldiers crossing No Man's Land to deliver a crucial message--is reportedly the odds-on favorite to win big at the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony this coming Sunday. Does it deserve the frontrunner status? Well let me put it this way:
The pic does feature an impressive technical feat: the entire narrative seemingly captured in a single shot. Actually several lengthy shots digitally stitched together using shadows, explosions, a dive into water to hide the transitions. The stitching is impressive--you have to look carefully to spot the seams and I'll readily admit I'm probably mistaken in many if not all my guesses; the choreography is impressive too, with people practical effects pyrotechnics interacting for tens of minutes.
If we're talking stuntwork though--and yes I consider this stuntwork, only it's the camera performing all the movie star leaps and tumbles--I'd say the one example that really shoved me off my seat was Alexander Sokurov's The Russian Ark--not just an imaginative journey through Russian history and a fabled repository of that history (The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg) but a beautifully choreographed duet between the camera and musicians dancers actors artworks the palace itself, all bristling chandeliers and echoing ballrooms and neverending hallways. Talk about precision, not only do the performers have to hit their marks they have to do it in tune, to the beat; all done in an uncut unstitched-together 96 minutes of high-definition video.
While we're at it, a nod to other one-shot (real and apparent) wonders: Alejandro Inarritu's Birdman; Sebastian Schipper's Victoria; Remton Siega Zuasola's Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria. Schipper's film despite the low budget comes closest to resembling 1917's aesthetics--expressing the desperation of the bank heist and its fubar aftermath in a single literally inescapable take. Zuasola's heroine--she's promised to an unseen German suitor to help pay family debts--comes to see her future as a one-way rail, exiled in a foreign country and trapped in a loveless marriage.
In either case the style feels limiting closed-off claustrophobic and appropriately so; the characters stew in their respective dilemmas, the tension building to some kind of dramatic resolution. Birdman is somewhat different--Inarritu takes his cue from the nature of theater and shoots backstage comedy segueing seamlessly into forestage drama, moves his protagonist from immersive reality into simmering fantasy with the protagonist's superhero counterpart popping into frame from time to time (at one point hovering over one shoulder, wings fluttering) to whisper subversive thoughts in one ear.
In each case the style adds something to the film, either suggesting inevitable fate or suggesting a continuity with the past or with one's interior monologue. 1917, as the director has repeatedly asserted, is shot in long take to 'immerse' the audience in the action. Point taken but the style (as in the aforementioned examples) could have added so much more.
The camerawork is easily the movie's best feature, if not quite as groundbreaking as it likes to proclaim; the acting is excellent, aside from the distraction of celebrity cameos (Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch). The script--the script has yet to justify that camerawork, among other sins.
There's thundering overuse of Chekov's Gun--if a soldier hooks his hand on barbed wire you can be sure he'll be dipping that same hand in a festering corpse; if we see rats skittering about No Man's Land you can be sure they will play a more prominent role later on; if unpasteurized milk is discovered in a bucket you can be sure it will be put to good use.
There's the yawning lack of a point to the picture: if the purpose of this extended exercise in 100 meter sprints is to say 'war is hell' we've understood that as far back as King Vidor's The Big Parade, more memorably (in my book) in films like Paths of Glory or Grand Illusion--despite the latter having not a single battle sequence. If the picture is meant to pay tribute to the men who fought and died in The Great War that's well and good if a tad belated (Peter Jackson had already done so a year earlier with previously unseen--if unnecessarily colorized--footage in They Shall Not Grow Old).
Some have compared the picture to a first-person shooter game and I see their point: our sadsack hero runs here and there, dodges ineptly aimed bullets (the Germans apparently having trained on the same firing range as Imperial Stormtroopers), runs into one impossible situation after another to emerge barely nicked. If we know little more of our protagonist other than his rank and surname that again is the fault of the script; captured soldiers are more forthcoming (at least we learn their full name and serial number) and videogame avatars eventually grow more familiar (in an online multiplayer scenario after a time you come to know your opponents' moves, tactics, overall strategy).
It's not bad--the sequence with the sniper was I thought well done--and not morally objectionable; if anything my main complaint is that it doesn't really dare much beyond its main gimmick, that it's an ultimately timid film. Does it deserve an Oscar for Best Picture? Absolutely: it's exactly the kind of elephantine step-on-no-toes mainstream work that wins the love of Academy voters. Helps that the movie has earned some $250 million in a little over a month--the voters love to give back to a moneymaker that has contributed so generously to the industry.
First published in Businessworld 2.7.20