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War Is Hell — And a First-Person Shooter — In ‘1917’

Hollywood has always tried to impress us with the realism, seriousness and immediacy of its war movies. But this single-shot World War I drama reveals an ugly truth: Really, we just want the voyeuristic thrill of playing soldier.

While watching 1917, the accomplished World War I film from director Sam Mendes, an odd thought kept running through my head: “Man, the Universal ride for this movie is gonna be awesome.” That might seem like a callous thing to think in the midst of a movie that lays out the madness, cruelty and devastation of war, and yet, there’s a perverse theme-park thrill to the film that’s hard to shake — if anything, 1917 leans into it.

Constructed to resemble one continuous shot, 1917 is just the latest example of Hollywood’s endless attempt to immerse us in the war experience — something that most of us (hopefully) will never know in our actual lives but, at the movies anyway, we apparently can’t get enough of. And while the film succeeds as a technical exercise, I’m dubious about whether it actually succeeds in terms of what a war movie ought to be. War is hell, but should it also be a rollercoaster? 

You can’t fault Mendes’ intentions. Dedicated to his grandfather, who fought in World War I and only later in life shared the stories of his time in combat, 1917 is awash in tension and seriousness of purpose from nearly the start. Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are British soldiers sent on a harrowing mission: They must make their way to the front to warn a battalion that its attack on a retreating German regiment is, in fact, a trap. (The Germans are plotting to ambush the outnumbered British.) Adding to the emotional resonance, Blake’s brother is one of the soldiers whose death is assured unless Blake and Schofield get there in time to stop them. 

There’s a hint of Saving Private Ryan to 1917’s narrative arc, but the better analogy might be any video game in which you have to complete one level, then move on to a harder level, complete that one and then go on to an even harder level. This is how 1917 plays out, and once you notice it, it’s almost impossible to ignore. One level involves navigating a seemingly deserted German trench. Another involves confronting a downed fighter pilot. Another involves a fleet of transport vehicles. Some levels are at night, while others are in the day. Sometimes, you have to cross a river. Just about every level features a classy-British-actor cameo — Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch — who dispenses a clue or new plot point. In fact, the tenets of role-playing games are so strong in 1917 that, when a character along the way asks for milk — a beverage our heroes happened to acquire earlier in the film — I half-expected a graphic to pop up telling me which button to push on my control pad to give her the milk and earn double bonus points.

What’s always been imposing about the war film is its stern air of authenticity — its assumption of instant gravitas for showing, in the most dramatic context possible, humanity at its worst. Over the years, we’ve been wowed by the lengths directors will go to sell the realness of their war movies. In the 1940s, The Best Years of Our Lives depicted the aftermath of war, casting an actual World War II veteran (Harold Russell) who lost both hands in the conflict for added verisimilitude. In the 1980s, Platoon was hailed as the most honest portrait of the Vietnam War because Oliver Stone had fought in that conflict and, therefore, must be an authority on what went down. Whether it’s Saving Private Ryan’s scarring opening sequence or The Hurt Locker’s blunt portrayal of PTSD, serious war movies dine out on their supposed ability to depict warfare as it actually happens — perhaps no genre is so invested in making sure we feel like we’re right in the thick of the action.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that somebody finally decided to incorporate the “one shot” gimmick for the war film. There are cuts in 1917, but you’re meant to feel like it’s all one unbroken scene, a movie in gripping real-time. Mendes chose to do this because of the immediacy he hoped it would create:

“What I wanted was a kind of quality of dream, but with the status of reality. I also wanted — and I believe this is how to tell sometimes stories and moments of great historic magnitude — to look through a tiny keyhole into a vast panorama to use the micro to tell the macro story. I did feel, if we could just understand what these two hours of real time meant for these men, we might somehow begin to re-imagine that war in a contemporary way.”

Mendes is speaking to the twin objectives of any serious war movie — authenticity but also originality — and it’s interesting to see how they manifest themselves in 1917. On a visceral level, the movie is a fun stunt, pulled off with panache and ample flexing. 1917 never stops pausing to say “Ta-da!” at the latest cinematic feat it’s pulled off. (Mendes, who recently made the James Bond movies Skyfall and Spectre, has learned a thing or two about dynamic action staging.) But everything that works about 1917 feels antithetical to the tribute he’s trying to craft for his grandfather and all those men who risked their lives in the First World War. Self-sacrifice and death are interwoven into the fabric of 1917, but it’s all presented as just cool background elements as these two soldiers (and the audience) journey from one space to the next. Maybe you’ll see some corpses. Maybe you’ll see some haunting images of white pedals floating in the wind. The film doesn’t so much peddle authenticity as it does the illusion of actual experience — the superficial, voyeuristic kick of getting to play soldier. It’s like VR without the headset or a Civil War reenactment with better actors. 1917 turns war into a carnival ride.

There’s a lot of talk these days about “preserving the theatrical experience”: In a world with myriad entertainment options, why should people bother putting on pants to sit around a bunch of strangers to watch a movie? Hollywood has tried new ways to get audiences to care — 3D, IMAX, 4DX — by making films as immersive and exciting as possible. 1917 feels troublingly connected to this trend, its roving camera rarely giving us a moment to catch our breath as we careen from battlefields to blown-up buildings to makeshift infirmaries. But you don’t watch 1917 thinking about the bravery of these young men — you wonder how Mendes and Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins staged all these bravura sequences. You think about all the logistical challenges that must have gone into the choreography of those long, unbroken shots. In other words, you think about the nuts and bolts of filmmaking — not the hearts and souls that were destroyed during the conflict.

This seems like an odd strategy for honoring these soldiers, but there’s actually something refreshing about the movie’s brazen desire to entertain. Deep down, all serious war films are trying to sell us on their rugged, gritty realism, but they’re all cons — simply incorporating new tricks to fool us into thinking they’re the real thing. 1917 is the showiest of the bunch, the most intent on saying the quiet part loud, which is that most war movies are just pure spectacle. They invoke somber themes, but they want to put on a show. Maybe war movies have always been theme-park rides — we’re just getting more proficient at them.

Here are three other takeaways from 1917

#1. Who said “Hope is a dangerous thing” best?

At one point in 1917, a side character solemnly intones, “Hope is a dangerous thing.” The line felt so familiar that I assumed it was from something — a poem, maybe? — so I decided to go down the rabbit hole of instances in which “Hope is a dangerous thing” has been uttered. I found three popular antecedents — turns out, none of them is a poem.

There’s a small faction of people who associate the line with Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, the name of an actual movie that I swear I didn’t make up. This was the second film in the Maze Runner trilogy, which was poor’s man version of the Hunger Games phenomenon. In the 2015 action-thriller, a survivor in this dystopian hellscape named Brenda (Rosa Salazar) announces, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope has killed more of my friends than the Flare and Scorch combined.” Because I care about you, dear reader, I looked up what those words mean: The Flare is a virus that turns people into bloodthirsty killers, while the Scorch is a fearsome desert. Back when the Maze Runner films were in theaters, I had little interest in seeing them — learning this new information did not increase that interest.

Then there are the Shawshank Redemption fans, who think of “Hope is a dangerous thing” as the line that Red (Morgan Freeman) says to Andy (Tim Robbins) after the younger man argues that prisoners need to hold onto a sense of hope in order to survive their ordeal. Red shuts that down, while expressing the movie’s central theme: Is it better to give up on the chance of a brighter future so that you won’t ultimately be disappointed? 

But “Hope is a dangerous thing” is probably now most synonymous with Lana Del Rey, whose closing song on her new album, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, is “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – But I Have It.” Referencing the doomed poet Sylvia Path, Del Rey lays out her despondent, resilient mood: “Don’t ask if I’m happy / You know that I’m not / But at best I can say I’m not sad.” Nonetheless, she’s holding onto hope, repeating “I have it” over and over as the song ends. 

As with all things Lana Del Rey, the internet has gone nuts for “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman,” resulting in a series of tribute videos and reinterpretations on YouTube that speak to how much the song resonates with people. There’s the user who transformed it into a ghostly, cathedral dirge:

…the user who decided it would be a good way to soundtrack the romantic plight of Keira Knightley’s character from Pride & Prejudice:

…and the user who wanted to celebrate the forgotten art-house drama Malèna, about a gorgeous but misunderstood war widow (Monica Bellucci) whose beauty enflames the men of a small Italian village:

Not surprisingly, Del Rey’s song has morphed into an anthem for imperiled or adrift female characters — clearly, it’s struck a chord with listeners who share the songwriter’s feelings of helplessness. I don’t see 1917’s usage supplanting “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman” in people’s minds anytime soon. It’s not nearly as catchy coming from Benedict Cumberbatch. 

#2. Roger Deakins is almost definitely going to win an Oscar for this movie.

No matter Academy voters’ feelings about 1917 on the whole, the one thing they’ll probably agree on is that it “looks amazing.” I put that phrase in quotes because, really, what does that even mean? Basically, that the film has a grand vision — and that everyone knows how difficult it was to stage all those long tracking shots. These factors usually win a film Best Cinematography, which is a shorthand for saying, “Hey, your movie sure is pretty and looked hard to do.” 

That combination of degree-of-difficulty and straight-up gorgeousness has led to honors in recent years for movies like Birdman, Life of Pi, The Revenant, Gravity and Roma, and it should do the same for 1917. If so, it will be the second time in three years that director of photography Roger Deakins will take home the prize — which is impressive considering that, before then, he was a notorious Oscar loser. In fact, he’d been nominated 13 times before finally winning an Academy Award for his 14th nomination, Blade Runner 2049. TIFF even put together a tribute video commemorating all the times he’d lost. These are some pretty eye-popping films:

Funny enough, though, Deakins’ losing streak was hardly the longest among nominees: Sound mixer Greg P. Russell has failed to win an Oscar despite having 17 chances over the years. (Adding to the embarrassment, Russell’s most recent nomination was stripped because he violated Academy campaigning rules.)

Even before winning the big prize, Deakins (who turned 70 in May) was firmly established as one of the world’s all-time great cinematographers. His work with the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese and Sam Mendes has been marked by an ability to capture indelible images and moody atmosphere. If anything, 1917 is relatively basic by his high visual standards, although there are a couple nighttime scenes in the movie that are just unreal in their beauty. 

No matter: The Academy Awards may still be more than a month away, but Best Cinematography is one category I feel pretty confident predicting right now. Deakins, long an Oscar also-ran, is about to earn his second statuette. No doubt these recent victories will finally help get him his big break in Hollywood.

#3. Here’s the World War I movie you should see next.

In terms of war films, World War II will probably always be more popular than World War I as a setting, but 1917 isn’t the only First World War film we’ve had in recent times. At the end of last year, a fascinating experiment called They Shall Not Grow Old arrived in theaters — and it actually became a sizable hit for a documentary. The cast of 1917 has said that they watched the film for inspiration, and it’s worth checking out as an alternative example of how to immerse an audience in the experience of war.

Directed by Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings), They Shall Not Grow Old consists of never-before-seen World War I footage depicting British soldiers on the frontlines. The footage was colorized as well as enhanced in different ways — including new sound effects to replicate the noises the troops would have heard, such as explosions — and then supplemented with interviews with soldiers, which serve as a ghostly voiceover accompanying everything that we see.

They Shall Not Grow Old doesn’t have a clear narrative, as you might imagine, but it’s stunning to see the everyday routine of life in trenches — it’s so banal, so ordinary, like the weirdest office job ever. But then the tedium is broken by battle scenes, and the loudness of the bullets and bombs is almost frightening — you can understand why soldiers return home (if they survive) profoundly scarred by what they encountered.

The documentary strips away the grandeur of war while also showing how fragile these young men are — one moment, they’re smiling and palling around, and then the next they could be dead. You never forget that these soldiers are just kids, and just about every single soul in the movie is now no longer with us. They Shall Not Grow Old is pretty sobering — and unlike 1917, it uses technology to bring us closer to these men, not wow us with its own achievement.