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A 'meh' war

'1917' turns WWI into a cinematic stunt

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World War I was coined the "Great War," the war to end all wars. But is the war movie "1917," which won "Best Drama" and "Best Director" at the Golden Globe Awards, a great film? The film to end all films? Almost certainly not. It's not a bad film, but it's not a conspicuously good film, either. Worse, with its oft-dazzling, no-expense-spared technique, it risks trivializing the epochal historical event.

Ostensibly conceived by director/co-writer/co-producer Sam Mendes ("American Beauty," "Skyfall") as an important remembrance of things past, "1917" comes off as rather desperately self-important and awards-grubbing. Mendes' film cannot help but evoke a WWI version of "Saving Private Ryan": a mashup of visceral war action and a mission with an emotional "this time, it's personal" hook. Add a self-styled auteur's flourish -- in this case, the cinematic-stunt illusion of the film's two hours being shot in what appears to be two unbroken "takes," or camera shots (achieved in large part by the brand of editing trickery seen in Alejandro González Iñárritu's award-winning "Birdman" and as far back as Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope"), and you have a recipe for Hollywood hype.

The plot, for the most part, is straightforward. In the titular year, a general (guest star Colin Firth) tasks fresh-faced young soldiers William (George MacKay) and Tom (Dean-Charles Chapman) with preventing a deadly ambush by delivering stand-down orders to a battalion that also happens to include Tom's brother (plus guest star Benedict Cumberbatch). Under the pressure of a nearly real-time ticking clock, the friends set off on their vital mission, encountering many dangers, toils and snares seasoned with amazing grace (these include encounters with a German pilot, a German sniper and, by painterly soft amber light, a French mother and child).

The devil's in the thoroughly predictable details, with Mendes attempting to thread the needle of a moving anti-war film in that narrow space between an amped-up, but arguably tasteless, transformation of war into thrill ride and the filmic wizardry that, when examined too closely, rings as hollow as a war machine rapped with a wrench. That's why Mendes' best asset isn't his crew but his cast, angels with stricken faces laboring to provide the earnestness the rest of the picture can't begin to muster. The "look at me!" form keeps undressing the picture's "Emperor's New Clothes" faux-sincere function.

I grant that this opinion amounts to a minority one, with Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins collecting plaudits from many an awards body and critic ("1917" appears on dozens of year-end "Top 10" lists). And I hasten to repeat: It's not exactly a bad film, but is the narrative that "1917" is the best picture of 2019 and, by extension, one for the ages? Let's meet back here in even a few years and see how indelible Mendes' film turned out to be.

— Peter Canavese

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