- “1917” is a technical achievement to be admired, but is deceptively shallow and offers nothing past a first viewing.
- Sam Mendes’ film won seven BAFTAs, including best film and best director over “Parasite.”
- While Roger Deakins’ cinematography deserves to win an Oscar, the film should not win best picture.
- Films such as “Parasite” and “Joker” offer much more than “1917.”
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
“1917” is an impressively made film. It has earned 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture and Best Director (for Sam Mendes) and is the favourite to take home multiple awards, including the latter two.
But “1917” is a hollow spectacle that relies too much on its technical achievements and is therefore undeserving of best picture. Here’s why.
‘1917’ is made around the one-shot gimmick, with an A to B story
Roger Deakins’ cinematography (Oscar-nominated) and Lee Smith’s clever editing (not Oscar-nominated) combine to create an anxiety-fuelled, claustrophobic experience that presents the film as one continuous shot. But that one-shot trick is just that … a trick. It’s a gimmick that the film centres itself on, making for a rather hollow film once you’ve got past the one-take trickery.
The technical comes first in “1917.” Everything revolves around the one-shot trick and because of this, the story is as basic as it can get – quite literally an A to B story – and seems to trundle on toward an inevitable conclusion. It never feels spontaneous or dangerous or unpredictable like a war movie should. Every action the characters take feels predestined and planned to the point where I never thought, “Anything can happen.”
But it feels this way because everything was so planned. Every take had to be carefully planned to within an inch of its life and executed to the exact detail, meaning there were great restrictions as to where the story could go and what the character could and couldn’t do.
Utilising the one-shot take technique in the sprawling mass of WWI drained the film, and the characters, of its urgency, its organic-ness, its unpredictability, and its sense of danger – four things a war movie absolutely needs.
And because it put the technical first and the story and characters second, the characters, though ably acted by the ensemble cast, are skin-deep and feel more like props than people. They are pawns on a technical chessboard that are impossible to invest in because it’s so obvious that their moves have been manufactured and pre-mapped out for them with no room to suspend the audience’s disbelief.
By building the film around the technically brilliant one-shot technique, “1917” becomes a transparent watch, displaying its gears and machinations for all to see. This makes it hard to forget you are watching a film, which, in turn, makes it hard to immerse oneself in the story rather than just the atmosphere.
Again, the technical work here in “1917” (Deakins in particular) is nothing short of excellent and I have no complaints about the film winning Best Cinematography, which it inevitably will.
But take away the one-shot trick and what does the picture have left? Not much, unlike its contemporaries.
‘1917’ falls short of other movies that use the one-shot gimmick
Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman,” both used the one-take technique to enhance the subject rather than have that technique be the subject.
Taking “Birdman” as a case study, Inarritu was smart enough to set “Birdman” in the small, confined space of one theatre (save for one or two segments on the nearby streets), which actually gave greater story possibilities for the characters and audiences. That’s why the trick worked. It wasn’t restricted by its own ambition.
Being more confined technically opened a wider range of story, character, and emotional possibilities that “1917” had to shut itself off to, sacrificing any themes it wanted to present in favour of maintaining the one-shot magic.
But even if “Birdman” was shot normally, you would still have an off-beat, idiosyncratic story and a host of quirky characters to spend time with like Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson, Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner and Emma Stone’s Sam – all Oscar-nominated for their performances as characters we still remember to this day.
“Birdman” also explores its themes – fame, loneliness, identity, respect, the price of self-worth – wonderfully. The themes of “1917” are … brotherhood? The tragedy of war? Hardly fresh and innovative, nor is the depth with which they tackle those themes.
“Birdman” doesn’t just rely on its technical tricks to earn its plaudits. It’s a complete film with multiple facets to it. That’s why it deserved its best picture win.
“1917” also falls short of the truly great war films of its kind, like Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” or Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” Those two depict WWII and are different beasts, of course, while Mendes tackles WWI, but both of those films have more to them than the technical accomplishments they posses.
They feature memorable characters, intricate narrative structures, and emotional arcs that invite the audience in, plus all of the technical set pieces and visual spectacle. “1917,” on the other hand, is all and only spectacle.
‘1917’ has zero rewatchability and a surprising lack of depth
Lovers of the film will point to scenes such as the one in the woods with the singing soldier as an emotional centre point of the film, but it’s not emotional. It’s just a scene written to be emotional because the filmmakers thought, “We need an emotional scene,” rather than it feeling organic or true.
Again, the over-reliance on the technical robs the movie of its potential heart. It feels cold and artificial.
And while “1917” demands to be seen on the big screen, it doesn’t beg for a second viewing. Once you’ve been through it once, you’ve consumed it all. Watching the film a second time (with all the tension and suspense gone), really shows how little the film has to offer, making for a surprisingly shallow film.
Indeed, If you watch “Marriage Story,”“Parasite,”“Jojo Rabbit,”“Joker,”“Little Women,” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” twice (which I have), you get to dive deeper into the story and characters, discovering new aspects of the film you didn’t catch the first time.
You can dive into the crumbling relationship in “Marriage Story” and get caught up in it time and time again. You can spend time in one of the most realised and detailed worlds in a film this year in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” You can realise how many jokes and sneaky slices of heart you missed in “Jojo Rabbit.”
You can go back and reread the subtext of “Parasite,” scouring for more clues and details scattered throughout the film. You can admire the brilliance of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in “Joker” and go back and see if those theories are really true, all the way spending time with the most tragically carved character of the year. With “1917,” you get nothing new the second time around.
‘1917’ is what Martin Scorsese calls a ‘theme park movie’ and a boring awards choice
To me, “1917” is the definition of what Martin Scorsese calls a “theme-park movie.” It’s an event, not a film. It’s a big, bombastic rollercoaster movie – which is fine and entertaining – but it is not the artistic achievement that Bong Joon Ho accomplished with “Parasite,” nor the nostalgic cinematic feast of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” or even the comic-book-character-study that is “Joker.”
“1917” is a great experience, but a terrible film.
And we’ve seen films like “1917” win time and time again at the Oscars – male-orientated war films such as “Dunkirk,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Platoon,” “American Sniper,” “Patton,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “From Here to Eternity,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and “The Hurt Locker” (which is still told from the point of view of men despite being directed by Kathryn Bigelow) are all Oscar-winning films.
The war-movie genre has won 12 best picture Oscars so far, the second most-rewarded genre ever behind only drama.
I’m not criticising their merit, nor their quality (a lot of those films are excellent), but this proves that a “1917” win would be more of the same story at the Oscars, as it was at the BAFTAs where it won seven awards including best film and best director. It is a missed opportunity to reward something we’ve never seen before at the Academy Awards, like the singular comedy “Jojo Rabbit” about a young boy befriending a Jewish girl while grappling with his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler, or a superhero movie-come-character-study in “Joker,” or the genre-defying “Parasite.”
Even Mendes’ Best Director nomination feels like the same old nod. This was an opportunity to nominate a different kind of filmmaker for a different kind of project. Waititi deserved one for “Jojo Rabbit,” while Greta Gerwig crafted a masterpiece in the beloved “Little Women,” and even Lulu Wang offered a sort of story we never saw before in the completely snubbed “The Farewell.” Those directors, and many more, all displayed a complete control of tone, displayed their own style, and executed their vision to five-star reviews. Yet the Academy chose to give the slot to Sam Mendes (who has won Best Director before for “American Beauty”) and another male war film.
In a world where ‘Parasite’ exists, how could you give best picture to anything else?
It’s received five-star reviews from pretty much everywhere, won the Palme D’or at Cannes, has a 99% Rotten Tomatoes rating (the highest of any film of the entire year) and will be the first-ever South Korean film to win an Oscar of any kind when it wins best international feature.
“Parasite” is best seen with as little knowledge of the film as possible, but it defies genre – twisting from family drama to horror-tinged thriller to black comedy to class tragedy throughout its running time. You are truly gripped – and not in the superficial way that “1917” digs its claws into you. Rather, you are made to care so greatly about the Kim family that during one unbearably tense set-piece, you want to get out of your seat and climb into the cinema screen to try and help the characters out in any way you can. And on repeat viewings, you still care just as much, even if you spend your time searching for deeper meanings and things you may have missed.
It’s so good, it’s almost a waste of breath trying to put it into words. But the words “and the Oscar for best picture goes to …” would be a decent start.
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