Every review or casual comment about 1917, from pan to praise, will all begin with the same undeniable fact: it’s an astounding technical achievement. While far from the first apparent single-take feature-length film, it’s certainly one of the most seamless.
Better, the feat is partially insulated from charges of gimmickry in that the structure derives directly from the urgency of the plot. There’s an essay waiting to be written about how both Sam Mendes and Christopher Nolan approached the venerable war film genre in the 21st Century: by experimenting with structure and time.
A couple things took me out of the experience:
The very intrusive score. Often so overbearing that I suspected the filmmakers doubted the power of their imagery. One particular example being Schofield’s (George MacKay) mad run across the battlefield being accompanied by a pounding rock score, when surely the shells, screaming, and guns would have been more effective.
Sentimental war movie cliches, most notably coming across a pretty young woman in the middle of a battlefield.
Casting movie stars as the various superiors the soldiers encounter throughout the film has some deleterious effects: it’s distracting when the two leads are relative unknowns, it calls attention to an episodic structure, and it relies too much on melodramatic camera reveals (holding the lens on Mark Strong’s boot for so long seemed a bit rich).
An unimaginative, unevocative title. These are not perfect analogies, but imagine if Platoon had been titled 1967, or if M*A*S*H had been 1951.
The first few minutes of Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road feature one of the boldest jump cuts this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) meet cute out of a crowd of Beatnik hipsters at a loft party. Like any flirting young couple, how each chooses to introduce themself comprises a promise as to whom each will become should they grow up together. The glamorous April simply says she is studying to be an actress, as if that is all Frank needs to know. He in turn cracks wise about toiling in nothing jobs holding him back from vaguely-defined great aspirations.
After this very brief scene, Mendes jump cuts to several years later to find Frank and April married in suburbia with two kids. An older Frank privately cringes during April’s weak debut in a community theater production. It turns out she’s not a great actress after all, but cursed to be just smart and sensitive enough to know it. Her sense of definitive failure and his frustration at her frustration combusts into a blistering roadside argument on par with any of the cataclysmic rows between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Frank and April’s all-consuming pride escapes as barely-veiled condescension toward their peers in the office and on their suburban street. They both share mutually incompatible senses of superiority, feeling destined for something great without knowing what, or having any obvious natural talent to nurture. It provides no satisfaction when Frank does eventually manifest an aptitude in marketing, something they both view as disappointing and beneath them. Who or what propped them up with this sense of superiority?
Are we to read their hubris as a critique of the Greatest Generation (Frank is a World War II veteran, an experience he romanticizes even while acknowledging his sheer terror at the time)? This generational theory would be supported by how the older Givings family views them – but more on the Givings later. Or were Frank and April’s egos boosted by overpraising parents? We hear much of Frank’s late father, who toiled in obscurity for years at the same firm where Frank now finds himself trapped, but any other relatives are wholly absent from their lives. Perhaps if Frank and April had been born a few generations later, they would be the sort of overconfident personalities drawn to compete on reality TV shows.
After April gives up on her dream of acting after her disastrous debut, she latches onto a fantasy of moving to Paris and supporting Frank so he may find his. But Frank is even less evolved than she; he never specifies what he imagines himself becoming. Writer? Politician? Artist? He has nothing to say, and no way to say it.
Their Gallic escape plan is not fully thought through, and Frank never really commits anyway. He’s clever enough to excel amongst the duller coworkers with whom he shares daily steak and martini lunches. He becomes further ensnared by success in the business world, as measured by income, the sexual availability of naive office girls, and a step above his father on the ego-stroking ladder of promotion.
One flaw of the film is dialogue that sometimes strays from naturalism into the novelistic. Even in the midst of the fiercest of arguments, April is still poised enough to deliver zingers like “No one forgets the truth, Frank, they just get better at lying” and “You’re just some boy who made me laugh at a party once, and now I loathe the sight of you.”
I promised to return to the Givings family, whom I believe are the key to understanding the film. Helen Givings (Kathy Bates) gently teaches April how to be a good housewife, offering passive aggressive critiques of such fripperies as lawn maintenance. But she slowly reveals a longing admiration for the Wheelers as an ideal American nuclear family: a nice, good-looking, successful, model young couple in love. The relatively coarse neighbors the Campbells also idealize the Wheelers.
Helen hopes that some of their pixie dust might rub off on her troubled son John (Michael Shannon), a mathematician and intellectual brought low by mental illness and electroshock therapy (whether it is the disease or the cure that ails him most is a question that bleakly amuses him). John proves to have the coldest, clearest, starkest view of reality, and cuts right through all the subterfuge and doublespeak with which these American nuclear families delude themselves. Everything he says is correct, but tragically, Frank and April interpret the bitterly damaged man as a kindred spirit and not as what he is: a holy fool (in the sense of idiot savant) that damningly illustrates their faults.
In some ways, the final scene is the most devastating, and it doesn’t even feature the Wheelers at all. The Givings chat at home alone, long after the Wheelers revealed themselves to be fatally fractious and tortured. We witness Helen rewrite history, belittling the Wheelers in terms of their ability to maintain the value of their home (read: their family). As she’s busy erasing her emotional stake in the Wheelers, her husband Howard (Richard Easton) turns off his hearing aid to literally drown her out. He gazes at her emptily, dispassionately, dead inside. We might imagine their marriage survived the kind of emotional flashpoint that destroyed the Wheelers, but trapped them in a cold, loveless life together.