The plot is simplicity itself. It’s the Spring of 1917 and two English tommies are assigned to cross no man’s land in search of a unit preparing to launch a disastrous attack on the German trenches. The two soldiers must deliver orders calling off the attack in order to save the lives of 1600 men. To make matters even more imperative, one of the messengers has a brother in the regiment due to storm into a Heinie trap.
What do we have here, at its heart? It’s the last ten minutes of Gallipoli stretched to over two hours. And, trust me, you’ll wish you’d simply re-watched Peter Weir’s superior film rather than this poke in the eye .
This is director Sam Mendes first screenplay and it shows. Typical of Dreamworks productions, it’s all hollow emotions, contrivance and gimmickry. It’s a “a show.” This is the horrors of war as a theme park attraction. From the conceit of shooting the entire film in one “continuous” shot to the utter lack of any effort to give the lead character a personality.
First off, the idea of making this an uninterrupted experience in real time (except where it’s inconvenient) may be a terrific technical achievement but, mostly, it only serves to remind us that we’re watching a movie. And, as the film goes on, the events portrayed have an increasing condensed feel to them as if the filmmakers were trying to cram more elements than the running time would allow. If you’ve ever wondered what a film editor does, the lack of one here should be an epiphany for you.
In the extras, I watched as they showed how they had dry runs with the characters walking the ground as they read their lines in order to time each scene in order to make certain they didn’t run out of set before the scene was over. Does that strike anyone else as a wrongheaded approach to cinematography? It brought to mind the Monty Python bit where the actor judges the difficulty of each Shakespeare role by how many words he has to speak.
And there’s the lead character. I understand that the character is meant to be an everyman. But that doesn’t mean he needs to be written as a cipher. The character comes off as an empty vessel with none of the elements needed to make him an individual. Yes, he represents all soldiers and any soldier. But he fails to have any life beyond what we see in the running time. There’s passing mention that he was at the Somme and impacted by that horrific experience. The only other reference to his life beyond this story comes at the very end in the film’s most effective scene. Like I said, I get why they approached the character this way, but they needed to put more thought into building this guy into someone memorable.
That brings me to the dialogue which is, except for one sequence, uniformly awful. Much like that other over-rated war movie travesty, Saving Private Ryan, the characters in this movie cannot stop reminding us of the plot. Is it really that hard to remember? Find the Yorks or they’re all gonna die. But the dialogue reminds us over and over again of the mission, the stakes and the ticking clock. And when the dialogue does depart from exposition it’s all vapid exchanges where silence might have served better. Most ludicrous is the less-experienced of the pair telling an involved anecdote while the two wander through no man’s land fully exposed from all directions. More disappointing is the supposedly war-weary and enemy-wary of the two doesn’t tell him to shut the hell up and watch their sight lines for movement. In that way, this dialogue might have a served a purpose. Instead, it’s just tiresome.
And, the dialogue itself needed a serious write-through by someone more interested in the richness of period dialogue. The anachronisms in the phrasing and word usage are constant. People simply did not drop F-bombs with the frequency and application that these characters use. A serious, “is there a better way to say this?” session should have been held to try and breathe some life into the exchanges here. But I guess the script doctor was out. Or perhaps there aren’t any good fixers left in Hollywood.
In addition to tedium, clichés populate the film, multiplying like rabbits as the story grinds on. Of course, the soldier runs into a pretty French girl about his age. How else are they going to get a female into the trailer? And how about a few touches of diversity to please the media critics? So we see a solitary Indian soldier and a solitary black soldier serving with otherwise all-white units. This is something that would never have happened in the Great War where regiments were comprised by men all form the same town, often from the same factory or coal mine. The Indian is even wearing a turban! Why not just have the soldier run into an Indian unit? Now that would have been interesting.
Further tired bits include having the character jump into a fast-moving stream to separate him from pursuit. This was a hoary gag long before Butch and Sundance jumped from that cliff to escape a posse. But William Goldman knew that and used it as the basis of one of that movie’s most memorable, and funny, scenes. Here, it serves as a convenience only and moves the film from the contrived to the ludicrous.
Also, in order to serve the stream-of-consciousness conceit of the film, the main character fails to hear an entire convoy of trucks pulling up within fifty yards of him. And, in the height of preposterousness, the entire column just so happens to come to a halt right where he is apparently ignoring them in a French farmyard.
In the end, it all kind of, literally, limps along until the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too climax.
All of that said, it is worth seeing once as a triumph of set design and costuming. You know, all those things you’re not supposed to notice while watching a movie. It really is an astounding achievement mercifully free of any CGI for the large part. The cinematography is marvelous as well and required quite a feat of engineering to accomplish in places. But, again, the kind of thing you pick up on in a second or third viewing. But here I was distracted from the story by the details. I was looking at the frame rather than the picture.