The first impulse I have after watching “1917” is self-destruction. This life is far too comfortable. Exiting the theater into an aseptic white hallway feels disrespectful. Even writing longer sentences feels hideously indulgent. I need to find something real to complain about. This need for self-flagellation comes from a place of respect for people who have borne so much—the politics of the actual war are completely irrelevant. Our two protagonists’ goal is to reach point A by a certain point in time to prevent tragedy X from occurring. A selfless act.
Their vulnerability is all too palpable. To see these pale hungry bodies trekking through an absolute wasteland makes the viewer giddy with tension. Decimated corpses litter the screen, and for a good part of the film, the only company present aside from our heroes are the occasional rats, bugs and stranded enemies. Brutal death is such a casual affair that it borders on the surreal; it is indeed no different than drinking a cup of coffee.
Aesthetically, no more can be desired. The cinematography is a sublime mixture of “Dunkirk” and “The Revenant,” with the added technical wizardry of making the film appear (save a single purposeful edit) as though it was created in one long take. “1917” (dir. Sam Mendes, 2020) is impossibly beautiful. The appearance of a single take has always been breathtaking, used here to fantastic effect: We do not cut from one barren trench to another, ignoring the hundred painful steps it took. Cinema’s greatest tool, a cut, forfeited in order to evoke the hourglass passage of time. A long take provokes suspense in two ways: “How on earth did they achieve this?” and “What could possibly come next?”
The image of war as poetic cinema is a tired cliche, but it is a cliche for a reason. It recontextualizes our contemporary society into something primal and random, the same way that a volcanic eruption is awe-inspiring in spite of its destructive nature.I suppose that is the side effect of making something so magnificent; you risk accidentally glorifying it for your audience, try as you might otherwise. Despite their best efforts to portray war in all of its insufferable truths—such as mistakenly sticking a freshly wounded hand through the cannonball hole of a perforated carcass—I am still inexplicably drawn to a single, aforementioned word, and that is beauty.
“1917” fits into place with other brute showcases of
Think of filmmaking as sacrifice—anything as sacrifice, really. A book requires X amount of dead trees, and Y amount of hours by a toiling author. Then, the question of film in particular must be scope: not only is there the writer but there is the actor, the director, the cinematographer and about a billion other professions scrolling by in small print font as the credits roll, with One Hundred Million Dollars sunken into the creation of a printed plastic spool, extremely flammable and prone to decay. A theater is an awfully big plot of land to sacrifice for an oft-empty room.
So then, after careful consideration of all of the sacrifices that must be made in order to enjoy something like “1917,” and after staring into the face of worldwide poverty and desperate times, I ask myself “Is it worth it?” Ashamed, sheepish and guilty, I answer: “It is.”