While it might have been Mendes' idea to make the movie in this way, it was Roger Deakins who actually achieved it. 1917 has Deakin's fingerprints all over it as his signature style is on display in every image. His choice to film with natural light sources leads to mesmerizing sequences that have been spoiled in the trailer. If you decide to watch this in the theater, it will be to see his work on a big screen. I say that because other than the incredibly high production value, there isn't much else to look forward to.
1917 fails to capture the human element of war. It does a great job keeping the audience on their toes as the one-shot presentation keeps the tension high. There are moments of fear, exhaustion, and hope, all of which blend thematically with the setting, but none give you the anchor into its characters. I need more than just a goal and a coherent plot to keep me interested. When I said it had tension and all those other things, I lied. It only had those elements for some of the time, as it mostly fell flat for me.
The driving force of the story is for two soldiers to deliver an order that would save many lives. The importance of their mission is blatant but seems to fall on deaf ears as almost everyone they meet doesn't care. That message of indifference seeped through and became the stance I took. While the script tries to give these characters humanizing moments, not much of it stuck. This disconnect comes down to how they were delivered. I could see the gears turning in the background as scenes of tension would be invalidated moments later. When plot points were being set up and then never referenced again, it felt like they were just cheap tricks.
It all comes down to what you appreciate about the art form. I like movies because they tell interesting stories about engaging characters. 1917 doesn't have that but instead offers a project that excels in production. The fancy camera sweeps, tracking shots, and set pieces offer visually stunning sequences that are enviable. While I didn't enjoy the film that much, I can recognize great work when I see it.
Without Roger Deakins, the movie would have been nothing special