Editors Note: There is always a degree of subjectivity with film. These written and video reviews for 1917 reflect two different perspectives by two different critics. If you are interested in or uncertain about the film, we encourage you to check out both reviews.
A Technological Wonder With Curiously Little to Ponder
About the Film
2020 sounds like the future to everyone born in the last millennium, and the movie 1917 (2020) is truly emblematic of this year, for worse and for better. Steeped in technology and unable to have existed without it, 1917 is purported to be one continuous shot, although I counted 18 likely cuts. Previously, the longest continuous shot had been been captured by Alfred Hitchcock in Rope (1948) when he literally filmed the takes for as long as the film reel would go (11-13 minutes), only to be surpassed by Russian Ark (2002) which was able to be one long shot due to the power of digital. Of note, both the movies Oldboy (2003) and Children of Men (2006) contain extended action sequences shown in just one cut, but 1917 is the first major film to attempt an entire war movie in a single shot. Film buffs will likely feel a thrill just from the suspense of seeing whether the film crew makes a mistake! To its further credit, 1917 features amazing action, adroit camerawork, and seamless CGI; it easily deserves its inevitable place among us critics’ best movies of the year.
Yet much like the year 2020, 1917 is remarkably uninterested in basic history or the lessons to be learned from it. The reasons for World War I—much less the reason the British soldiers onscreen are in France or even fighting in the first place—are never mentioned, much less explored. Likewise, the movie’s splendid action and horrific violence distract from an underlying lack of theme which becomes apparent in the days following a viewing. Once the emotions wear off, you realize that the film has given you spectacle without much substance. While I praise a movie that feels no need but to tell a good story, 1917’s story does not give you much to chew on, unlike the all-time great war movies.
On the Surface—(Profanity, sexual content, violence, etc.)
Movies can portray violence as funny (slapstick), cool (action), frightening (horror), or either dismaying/nonchalant (depends on the drama!). The violence in 1917 feels like that of a horror movie, a surprising emotion to find in a war film. Audiences should be aware that the movie goes to a level of violence typically found only in the horror genre. I suspect there was quite a lot of cursing in the movie, but noticing it was not on my priority list because I felt pummeled by the violence. While 1917 features neither nudity nor sexual content, it certainly earns its “Hard R” and should not be shown to children.
Beneath the Surface—(Themes, philosophical messages, worldview, etc.)
1. Moral War? Immoral War? In 1917 It’s Just War
Any movie looking honestly at war decides that war extracts a terrible cost even if it is a just war. But 1917 expresses little interest in weighing into debates about the morality of war in general, much less World War 1. In this movie, war is just war.
2. Varieties of Grieving
1917’s most interesting look at people comes through observing how different characters grieve. In the face of loss, one character feels desperate, another feels disappointed, and one noteworthy character is simply flippant. A Grief Observed recounts C.S. Lewis’s honest and raw stages of grief for his wife, and in my copy Lewis’s stepson adds his own foreword explaining that his very British upbringing prevented him from showing emotion when his mother died. This purports well with one of the characters in the movie, whose reaction to death communicates a “stiff upper lip” on top of overwhelming shock. The sections dealing with loss are the most human in a movie otherwise given to stunts over character-building.
It is easy to recommend 1917 for audiences willing to handle extraordinarily gruesome war violence. Yet adding character growth, scene-setting, and strong themes would have elevated the film from being one of the best movies of the year to the best movies of the decade or even all-time. As is, 1917 is iconic of the year 2020 in America: amazing, scary, and a little short on substance.