Monday, January 27, 2020

The Movie 1917, Action, and Characters

In my last blog, I talked about how and why you need tension to keep a story moving forward.  A week ago, my wife and I saw the movie 1917.  The action was so non-stop,that at the end of the movie, while the credits were rolling, I felt myself exhale.

Had I held my breath for two hours?  Of course not.  But it felt like it and I know I was on the edge of my seat throughout the entire film.

So, what worked for the movie and what didn’t?

1917 has already won the Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture and Best Director as well as a slew of other awards.  It’s nominated for 10 Academy Awards and a ton of nominations from such organizations like BAFTA and dozens of film critic associations.  The movie has received numerous glowing reviews.

However, the New York Times was less complimentary, “The idea behind the camerawork seems to be to bring viewers close to the action, so you can share what Blake and Schofield endure each step of the way. Mostly, though, the illusion of seamlessness draws attention away from the messengers, who are only lightly sketched in, and toward Roger Deakins’s cinematography and, by extension, Mendes’s filmmaking. Whether the camera is figuratively breathing down Blake’s and Schofield’s necks or pulling back to show them creeping inside a water-filled crater as big as a swimming pool, you are always keenly aware of the technical hurdles involved in getting the characters from here to there, from this trench to that crater.”

The review continues, “In another movie, such demonstrative self-reflexivity might have been deployed to productive effect; here, it registers as grandstanding. It’s too bad and it’s frustrating, because the two leads make appealing company: The round-faced Chapman brings loose, affable charm to his role, while MacKay, a talented actor who’s all sharp angles, primarily delivers reactive intensity. This lack of nuance can be blamed on Mendes, who throughout seems far more interested in the movie’s machinery than in the human costs of war or the attendant subjects — sacrifice, patriotism and so on — that puff into view like little wisps of engine steam.”

In a review by Peter Sobczynski, he says, “… the film is so obsessed with its particular technique that it doesn’t leave room for the other things we also go to the movies for—little things like a strong story, interesting characters, or a reason for existing other than as a feat of technical derring-do. Sitting through it is like watching someone else playing a video game for two solid hours, and not an especially compelling one at that.”

Two weeks ago, in my blog about building tension into a story, I wrote that the readers must be invested in the characters.  I was invested in the action and wanted the characters to complete their important mission (saving 1600 British lives) but didn’t know much about the protagonists at all.

Giving the movie credit, you can make some suppositions about the lead characters through their actions.   That’s not a bad thing at all.  It's just that throughout the movie, I was more invested in the mission rather than the protagonists.

I mentioned in my blog how you have to ratchet up the tension. Just when you think things are bad, you have to make them worse.  1917 certainly does that.  However, it's lucky for the good guys that the  bad guys are such bad shots.

There should be an ebb and flow in the tension.  1917 is shot brilliantly, seemingly in one long seamless take, one breathless action shot after another.  There’s nearly no place for breathing space.  Like I said at the beginning, I exhaled at the end of the movie as if I’d held my breath for two hours.  If it hadn’t been such a dark tale, it would have felt a lot like an Indiana Jones movie.

It all worked, though and I predict the film will collect a whole basket of awards.  I highly recommend you see it, if for nothing more than the cinematography.

No comments: