Film & TV

1917: War as Video Game and Ceremony

George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman in 1917. (Universal Pictures)
Disdain, contrivance, and irony produce fake feeling.

What the impeachment show trial walk-through needed (as broadcast in real time — another of network and cable TV’s Breaking News intrusions) was Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas steadicam to make the fabricated excitement feel momentous. Instead, the awkwardly staged Engrossment Ceremony was non-scintillating TV. You might be giddy, like CBS’s Nora O’Donnell and Margaret Brennan, or enraged by the mockery of justice. Fake protocol is the rage now, as proved by both Congress and Sam Mendes’s World War I drama 1917.

1917? “Yikes! The Russian Revolution,” you’d normally think. But Mendes memorializes that year with a closer-to-home story, as if discovering British patriotism — a new way to exploit Brexit. For Mendes, 1917 suggests national loyalty by following Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) as they trek into and outside battle conditions. Their mission is to prevent a suicidal maneuver by a battalion of 1,600 British troops — including Blake’s brother.

For civilian filmmakers such as Mendes, war is not a recalled experience, it is an engrossment ceremony. Mendes, a theater phenom, broke into Hollywood as a master of contrivance with American Beauty (1999), followed by several other America-based films. He didn’t make a single movie set in England proper until 2012’s James Bond opus Skyfall. Now, using war in the spirit of Scorsese’s one-shot GoodFellas gimmick, Mendes confirms that contrivance has replaced moral and political response.

Mendes’s prowling-camera vision of trench and field warfare offers jolts but never surprise; as Roger Deakin’s adaptable camera surges through variously lighted locales, one’s suspension of disbelief is dispelled by the photogenic stunt. 1917 evokes the relentless movement of Stanley Kubrick’s WWI drama Paths of Glory but commits to a video game’s ever-shifting environments.

In the 21st-century battle between cinema and video games, Mendes announces defeat.

***

Over a hundred years ago, the “War’s Peace” tableau in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation distilled combat through a quintessential image: slain soldiers lying crumpled on a battlefield, a flesh-and-blood memorial that carried the anguish of a not-so-distant battle. It was inspired by the pain of social and psychic wounds that could still be felt by a filmmaker and audience just generations away from the Civil War.

That black-and-white image (a still or rigor mortis?) was a technological breakthrough. Griffith molded his vision of war from the vibrant reportage of legendary 19th-century photographer Mathew Brady, who had actually captured the disasters of war through his camera lens and mobile studio. Much of the art of The Birth of a Nation owes to cinema’s unique sense of you-are-there immediacy. This is what 1917 also attempts to convey. But due to the hyper-sophisticated knowingness of the digital era, with its video-game detachment and deep-fake distrust and irony, Mendes cannot muster Griffith’s power or ingenuity.

When Schofield arrives at his sentimental destination and the battle ceases, Mendes attempts to move viewers’ emotions. The game settles down into a small moment of intimacy between strangers who are compatriots. Yet the scene feels contrived rather than overwhelming — although the critics are raving, as usual.

Steven Spielberg’s superior WWI movie War Horse was ridiculed simply because it wasn’t the now-forgotten stage play. His detractors were indifferent to Spielberg’s sense of heritage, how he knowingly followed the visual style of John Ford’s WWI drama What Price Glory? — using amber-toned realism and somber, twilight chiaroscuro to indicate doom and convey tragedy. Yet Mendes is hailed for merely appealing to the digital era’s visual fallacy.

Mendes’s status as a theater maven recalls the prestige enjoyed by the late Mike Nichols. Like Nichols, Mendes gives off a whiff of exhausting, smart-ass cleverness (seen in Nichols’s Wolf, Regarding Henry, and Charlie Wilson’s War). 1917 continues Nichols’s elitist disdain for military service as a futile endeavor. Mendes show the costly effort of a nation in crisis and then attempts to wring tears — fake feeling — from its historical reality. Ironic fakery also ruined Mendes’s Gulf War film Jarhead (2005), in which Deakins’s monochromatic desert was also meant to impress.

Mendes’s “vision” derives from a status-based cultural position rather than a gift of perception. Does 1917 have a Tory perspective in the wake of Brexit, or is it just shrewdly cynical about recently earned national pride? (Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk aroused the same suspicion through its tech-nerd obsessiveness and lack of relatable dramatic affect.)

These motivations are not clear or predictable in popular culture. Consider that Mendes can’t even achieve the genuine effectiveness of the high-relief war memorial that was used as cover art on The Jam’s anti-imperialist album Setting Sons (1979), which, at the crest of England’s punk movement, felt both ironic and authentic. 1917 comes off as official rather than definitive. It’s both a war movie and an engrossment ceremony.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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