With 1917 now getting a wide release after getting a limited release around Christmas, I never understand why places like New York and Los Angeles get the war movies first when they are likely targets to get some Oscar love. Past examples include Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor, The Revenant, and others that can be thrown into that category. But besides that, there has been a lot of talk about Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes’ intense war film right as the trailer dropped. Though it’s safe to say this feels like you’re on the battlefield while sitting in your seat for two hours.
What’s the Story: Set during World War I on April 6, 1917, Lance Cpl. William Schofield (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic) and Lance Cpl. Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Game of Thrones) are two young British soldiers who given the serious mission of delivering a message behind enemy lines to call off a planned attack on the German side that could save 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother.
Mendes has always been a talented director. Many people seem to hate on American Beauty recently as it had its 20th anniversary, but I ain’t jumping on that bandwagon since I still think it’s one of my favorites movies, and his peak with action came with helming my second favorite James Bond film, Skyfall. But I’m always up for a war film, especially when it’s a story taken place WWI or II, which was why this was one of my most anticipated movies near the end of 2019. One of the few people in the world that’s last to see this. For those who don’t know, Mendes co-wrote this with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (the upcoming Last Night in Soho) based on the stories that his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, told him when he was fighting in the first World War has a messenger, and this was a story that’s important to tell in an epic that’s hard to ignore and must be experienced on the big screen.
The thing that was highly talked about most when filming 1917 was that it was all done to make it look like one continuous take, which I didn’t believe when I first heard that they were making this happen. The idea itself sounded like Birdman mixed with the five-minute unbroken take from Atonement. But call me impressed with how everything was timed and set up and not make it become a “gimmick” when it’s over. There were maybe a few times were a cut was needed, but the rest of the film pulled it off. Mendes’ direction throughout was incredible in every scene where we’re on this immersive and risk-taking mission that leaves a lot of think about what’s going to happen.
The performances from MacKay and Chapman were excellent since we are following these two on this dangerous journey to what can be described as hell back then. Both of them were great, and I was able to care about their respective characters. This also has small roles from Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong, but they weren’t that important enough to remember since they are more recognizable actors than our two leads.
For every war movies, the need to talk about how the action was played out is a guarantee. This has some of the most realistic battle sequences I’ve seen in a while where there was major tension-filled throughout. As our men are crossing “No Man’s Land,” the possibilities that could go wrong in my head reached maxed. Though this isn’t exactly marketed to be an action-heavy film, any time a gunshot is fired or bombs going off, it’s captivating on every level.
On a technical level, there’s a lot to be happy about. Though my favorite cinematographer Roger Deakins, his fourth time working with Mendes, has already won an Oscar a couple of years ago, his cinematography is so beautiful that he might as well win his second because of how he keeps his shots steady on MacKay and Chapman and never losing focus on the tense nature of the story. What was interesting was that they shot many scenes when it was cloudy and it involved no sunshine. Some of the best shots are those taking place in the nighttime, which makes it the best-looking war movie I’ve seen. Thomas Newman became such an underappreciated composer because he has never won an Oscar, and the score he provided for the film is one of his best in over a decade. Just listen to the piece “Sixteen Hundred Men” to feel this rush of emergence. And finally. the hard work that went into the production design of the trenches and the muddy battlefield to make it look empty and eerie was above all terrific.
If there was one thing that was a mild complaint about the film, it drags right around the second act for a little. Maybe that’s because there were so many long takes with no action happening on screen. And even though some might say there isn’t any real characterization found with these main characters, it didn’t matter to me the same way that it can be compared to Dunkirk (I also love) when it was all about saving these men in battle; this is the same.
At its core, this is just men doing whatever it takes from seeing their fellow men getting killed during this battle and what could’ve easily been the first step into stopping this war to save everyone involved. It allows us to follow MacKay and Chapman like we already know them and hoping they get into any serious trouble along the way, but problems do occur at nearly every stop when traveling from point A to B in real-time. Really, without them, then there’s no purpose in caring about this event in time. Yes, it’s about war, but it’s also about transporting us to this world that’s surrounded by terror and heroism around every corner.
In the end, 1917 is needed proof why more war movies should be intense and immersive. How Mendes crafted this race against time story about saving humanity is astounding. Sure, it kind of dragged a tiny bit from my perspective, but it doesn’t take away from how heart-pounding this came to be. This is definitely a technical achievement out of all of cinema from this past year. Does it have a clear shot at taking home Best Picture? Well, after winning the Golden Globes, it’s in the top three easily. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite movie from Mendes since American Beauty and Skyfall are still my top two, but this is in the conversation to call this one of the best movies of 2019 for sure. Grade: A-