Two British soldiers carry a message of mortal importance across No Man’s Land during the Battle of Passchendaele in April 1917. Thanks to director Sam Mendes’ ham-handed attempts at cinematic innovation, the audience views the sequence of events from the perspective of a small dog dragged along on a leash behind them. The film, which opened on Christmas Day in the United States, leaves the audience with no more understanding of war or the men who fight it than a canine mascot must acquire.
The new film has many virtues, or rather qualities which would have been virtues had they been in a different film. It offers superb acting and no-expense-spared sets and effect, but its strengths are vitiated by a wrongheaded conception of cinematic time.
Mendes and his crew made enormous efforts to film as much of the action as possible in continuous shots, where the camera follows the actors for a lengthy interval, as they explained in a 12-minute “making of 1917” featurette. The camera trails the actors in what Mendes imagines to be “real time” through trenches, battlefields, ruined cities, and assorted disasters. Technically this poses great challenges, but the aesthetic outcome is a canine perspective on human events.
Time is represented as an indifferent sequence of moments, which means practically that every moment commands equal attention. In this nightmarish world there can be no drama, that is, no climax. On the contrary, every occurrence of importance to the thin narrative necessarily becomes an anti-climax.
The effect is queasiness, similar to the experience of certain virtual reality videos. When you leap into virtual space or drive a virtual race car while wearing a VR headset, the cognitive dissonance between your artificial perception of motion and your stationary body makes you dizzy. It is of clinical interest that a similar effect is produced by moving through an endless blah of cinematic time, stumbling from moment to moment without direction or purpose.
The barebones plot sadly reinforces the sense of temporal disorientation. Two corporals (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) are dispatched to warn a British division against charging into a German trap. They walk past piles of corpses in shell craters, through abandoned but booby-trapped German trenches, and ruined villages. In the midst of their journey, a German plane is shot down. They rescue the pilot from the burning aircraft, but he stabs one of them to death. The surviving corporal makes his way past German stragglers to the British lines, and with heroic effort persuades the commanding officer to call off the attack. The officer (Benedict Cumberbatch) comments cynically that today he has been ordered to stand down, but next week it will be “attack at dawn.”
Fever nightmares that drag on interminably convey a similar effect. Although 1917 has been compared to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), the resemblance is entirely superficial. In the 1998 film, a squad is dispatched on a humanitarian mission to find a soldier who has just lost three brothers in combat. The Spielberg film, one of the best war films ever made, asks viewers to consider the value of a single human life: Is it worth sacrificing the lives of several men for the life of one, even under exceptional circumstances? “Ryan” does not offer an easy answer.
What separates “Ryan” from 1917 is cinematic time. Spielberg’s film is shown from the perspective of the now-elderly Ryan visiting the grave of the captain who died saving him, wondering whether the life he has lived has been good enough to redeem the sacrifice. Spielberg well understands that our perception of time is not linear. Time is not a succession of indifferent moments (except perhaps to Schopenhauer), but a composite created by human reflection. This was first stated clearly by St Augustine in The Confessions: the past is gone, the present moment is too insubstantial to grasp, and the future has not yet arrived. Past, present and future therefore cannot be perceived directly. What we call time arises from our own reflection. It is a composite of memory and anticipation.
What makes “Ryan” an effective work of art (and not merely a lesson in morality) is Spielberg’s cinematic ability to evoke reflection in time. Sam Mendes’ reliance on continuous shots is a faddish abdication of artistic responsibility.