06/02/20 20:02 Filed in: 2020
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring: Dean-Charles Chapman
Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!
The movie’s serene opening is completely unexpected…two British soldiers are napping in a field in northern France during the height of WWI. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is roused by a superior officer and told, “Pick a man. Bring your kit.”
Before Blake’s waking friend, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), can protest, the two young men are trudging through a winding labyrinth of trenches. After several minutes of maneuvering down narrow passageways, the soldiers finally arrive at General Erinmore’s (Colin Firth) command bunker.
Erinmore wastes no time in outlining Blake and Schofield’s assignment—they are to cross over into enemy territory, rendezvous with a British battalion and deliver a letter which warns of a German trap. Failure to deliver the message will jeopardize 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother. This is one impossible mission even Ethan Hunt wouldn’t accept.
The movie’s premise is simple enough and, barring a few twists along the way, the plot is fairly straightforward too. But story (director Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns wrote the screenplay) isn’t the movie’s strong suit. Even though the film features excellent performances from Chapman, MacKay, Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch, acting isn’t its strong suit either. (Fans of BBC’s Sherlock will note that the series’ hero and chief villain are both among this movie’s cast).
So why is 1917 causing such a stir (many top critics have lauded the film and it just won Best Motion Picture at the 2020 Golden Globes)? In short, 1917 is a cinematic achievement. Though that phrase is employed far too frequently these days, it’s wholly justified in this case.
For 1917, Mendes (Skyfall) has attempted the seemingly impossible. Mendes’ original concept, which was inspired by his eight minute sequence at the beginning of Spectre (2015), was to film his WWI epic as a single shot in real time. Alas, unlike TVs 24, the movie doesn’t occur in real time, nor was it shot in order (a few scenes were shot out of sequence). However, the film does achieve the feeling of one long, continuous shot.
This certainly isn’t the first war movie to employ uber-difficult long takes. Many will point to the frenetic, bone-jarring long take in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957)—where Kirk Douglas leads his men on a writhing, weaving course along a bomb-blasted battlefield—as the finest of its kind. Others could make a strong case for the extraordinary long takes in The Longest Day (1962), Atonement (2007) and, of course, Saving Private Ryan (1998). While those films featured one significant long take each, 1917 is comprised of a series of extended takes, the longest of which is nine minutes. There’s no overstating the magnitude of what Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins (along with the alchemic editing team) have achieved here.
The film took extensive planning and execution to pull off. The sets were constructed in an almost storyboard fashion. The movie proceeded scene by scene, station to station, and through trenches, mud pits and tunnels. If it rained, the company shut down (but continued to rehearse) until the weather cleared. Conversely, if the previous scene was shot under an overcast sky and the sun peaked through the clouds, they had to wait for the sun to go back in. The sheer logistics of producing such a project (constructing 5,200 feet of trenches, filming in the mud and elements for 65 days, etc.) are mind-boggling and exhausting to consider.
Most war movies contain similar themes, such as bravery, courage, sacrifice and friendship. Blake and Schofield exhibit excellent teamwork as they work in tandem to overcome the many obstacles thrown in their path. Their training is evident and their dedication to the mission is admirable.
At one point, Schofield asks Blake why he was chosen for the mission. Blake asks Schofield if he wants to go back. Schofield proves his loyalty as a friend and fellow soldier by remaining at Blake’s side.
This degree of loyalty and companionship is reminiscent of Frodo and Sam’s in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Similar to Blake and Schofield’s trek, the Hobbits are required to traverse inhospitable regions filled with untold dangers in order to accomplish their objective. At one point, Schofield tries to pick up Blake, just like Sam did with Frodo. As sidekicks, both Sam and Schofield are willing to sacrifice themselves for their friend.
There are many unforgettable visual compositions in the movie. In one scene, a crashing German plane rapidly approaches Blake and Schofield from behind as they run straight toward the camera. The shot recalls Cary Grant sprinting away from the low-flying crop duster in North by Northwest (1959).
In another scene, Schofield exchanges fire with a German sniper and ends up falling down a flight of stairs. After an undetermined span of time (brilliantly, the film fades to black for a few moments), Schofield finally regains consciousness.
Despite its unqualified brilliance, the movie surely will have its naysayers. Some may feel the movie’s progressive plot and filming technique have detracted from the overall viewing experience while simultaneously distracting many from realizing that the cause and effect story could’ve been written by a 10-year-old (with all due deference to today’s savvy young people). Others may criticize the movie for being enamored with its own style. All are valid arguments. Normally I grade down for “style over substance” spectacles (like Dunkirk), but 1917 is a landmark effort that deserves nothing less than top marks.
In the final analysis, Mendes has achieved a staggering feat of cinematic wizardry with his ambitious one-shot filming. The movie is bolstered by stunning cinematography, astounding production elements, a beautifully restrained score by Thomas Newman and superb performances from its cornucopia of a cast. 1917 is an immersive, visceral and unrelenting journey through claustrophobic trenches, sodden plains and hellish landscapes…with cat-sized rodents and corpses to spare.
1917 is an unparalleled cinematic achievement unlikely to be outdone in our lifetime. Above all, 1917 has pushed the art forward. Regardless of its many accolades, that will be its lasting legacy.
Rating: 4 out of 4