War Sailor Season 1 Review – Sincere but listless human drama

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: April 3, 2023 (Last updated: January 20, 2024)
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War Sailor Season 1 Review – Sincere but listless human drama

This review of the Netflix series War Sailor Season 1 does not contain spoilers.

Gunnar Vikene, the writer-director of both 2022’s War Sailor and 2023’s same-titled Netflix limited series, is sure there’s a story to tell about sailors during World War II. So sure is he, in fact, that he spent two and a half hours in a feature film and three in a series telling the exact same one.

War Sailor Season 1 review and plot summary

I don’t know how this three-episode Norwegian original series came to be, frankly. Perhaps the film version didn’t quite suffice. Either way, here it is, proceeding along much the same lines and exploring the same themes, just as humanely and seriously but without as much urgency as you’d think the subject would merit.

A lesser writer would say the whole thing is left somewhat adrift, but you surely come here for better criticism than that.

It’s accurate, though. Three hour-long episodes bring Netflix’s version of War Sailor a half-hour over the theatrical runtime but without much more to say, really. So, the limited series is often content to say nothing, or at least very little, languishing in long periods of relative inactivity before becoming suddenly overwhelmed by drama of both the human and wartime varieties.

The friendship between Sigborn “Wally” Kvalvag (Pal Sverre Hagen) and Alfred “Freddy” Garnes (Kristoffer Joner) forms the focal dynamic before, during, and after the war; two men thrust into calamitous circumstances and forced to endure terrible hardship that they subsequently cannot move on from. The most compelling narrative idea in War Sailor is that their wartime experiences are, simply, an accident, the result of a merchant vessel being caught up in the start of the conflict.

But the three episodes get lost in the thickets of this relationship and the trauma that defines it, forgetting some essential tenets of entertainment along the way.

Is War Sailor good or bad?

The uneven structure and pace blight the first two episodes. The third is less of a casualty but there’s a chance many viewers won’t even see it, having tapped out way before then.

It’s a handsome production, at least. The material is treated with respect by capable actors who play mostly ordinary folks stuck in extraordinary circumstances, forced to endure – or at least believably depict – a myriad of extreme emotions. The hook is there. The end goal is visible. There’s just no hurry to connect the two.

World War II has been done to death at this point, so much so that new media exploring it needs an angle. For Dunkirk, it was non-sequential storytelling, and that’s the same kind of gimmick War Sailor adopts, although admittedly without the extreme watchmaker’s precision that made Nolan’s blockbuster so good.

It’s also very specifically about sailors and ships, which isn’t new but is at least a focus. There’s something terrifying about the ocean at the best of times, let alone with enemy aircraft screeching overhead. War Sailor is good at evoking that terror, reimagining it within a very specific context. But beyond the rickety vessels, it’s more interested in the human element, the steep toll war takes on the men and women who fight it, and how its legacy endures long after the final shot has been fired.

Is War Sailor worth watching?

Some will relish the pace and claim it enhances the human drama. They might be right, but it’s difficult to tell. I personally found War Sailor’s unhurried and sometimes confounding approach a little off-putting, like it was trying too hard to needlessly overcomplicate a deeply humane story that would have worked better had the events been allowed to speak for themselves without unnecessary creative flourish.

READ: Is War Sailor on Netflix based on a true story?

But, as I said above, you need an angle for this kind of thing these days. War Sailor does a decent job of providing one and it’s hard not to get swept up – sorry – in its machinations. Needless to say, World War II is one of humanity’s great failings, but if it has an upside, it has been a pretty reliable source of affecting human drama over the years.

This remains true even now, and this is a show that recognizes war stories are all, fundamentally, human stories, about people at their worst and at their very, very best, about tremendous hardships and great cruelty and enduring, indomitable spirit. For War Sailor to make all that as uninteresting as it does is quite the feat.

What did you think of War Sailor Season 1? Comment below.

You can watch this series with a subscription to Netflix.

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Netflix, Streaming Service, TV, TV Reviews
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