Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Dean Charles-Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays
Synopsis: Two young British soldiers during the First World War are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, including one of the solders' brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, some disturbing images, and language)
Runtime: 1 hr 59 min
Release Date: December 25, 2019 (limited)
Sometimes the gravest of things are put in the hands of the ordinary.
In World War I, Lance Corporals Blake (Dean Charles-Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are sent to deliver an important message to call off an attack that could save the lives of over 1,600 men, including Blake's own brother Joseph (Richard Madden). It's a massive undertaking for two people, considering their little firepower and the dangerous territory they'll traverse along the way, but one that must be made, and made as fast as possible.
Right away, director and co-writer Sam Mendes lays out the serious stakes here, with Blake having an additional personal one, so we as an audience are already engaged with what is to come, even though we aren't prepared for what we'll experience. And just like the best kind of movies, 1917 is exactly that--an experience.
It accomplishes this through Roger Deakins' (still fresh off his Oscar-winning work in Blade Runner 2049) masterful cinematography, which employs the rarely used, incredibly challenging, but highly effective one-shot approach. Deakins was quoted as saying that he didn't want the one shot to come across as a gimmick--he wanted the camera to appear invisible to the audience, even though it was never cutting. As a result, we don't get the shaky camera approach seen in Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men. Instead, we get smooth tracking and crane shots that follow these characters effortlessly on their journey to the deliver the message to the second battalion. What's so impressive here is that not only are the shots long, but the camera moves across such rough terrain, through mud, dirt, tunnels (including several palm-sweating inducing sequences) and so many different elevations, and yet the motion remains perfectly smooth, as transitions from crane shots to handing it off to a steadicam operator are made with a false sense of ease. Timings for the blocking of actors (and remembering lines) have to be perfect, the focus of the camera has to be on point through the entire shot, and oh yeah--the vast majority of the film is set during a cloudy day so all the shots have to be overcast with no sun peaking through. Best of luck. Again, Deakins' goal was for the audience to not notice the one shot approach, but as a former film student (and I'm sure for many others) it's impossible not to notice and appreciate the brilliance of the work here.
Deakins also wanted to motivate the one shot approach, and 1917's storyline of two soldiers attempting to deliver a vital message in a rapid time frame is the perfect motivation. We as the audience feel the urgency and graveness of the situation, and we're there for 100% of the soldiers' experience in this journey, as the camera literally never leaves them. The one shot technique for the entirety of the film naturally yields to the method of real time, where the duration of the plot is the actual runtime of the film--an extremely rare phenomenon for movies. Save for a couple hours of sleeping, 1917 is entirely in real time, which not only makes the movie unique (especially for a war film) but immersive and engaging, since the one shot and real time is how we normally perceive the world, as opposed to the traditional cutting between different locations and different time frames.
1917 also benefits for how raw and visceral it is, for while following our heroes, Deakins' camera also frequently tilts down and pans around to reveal the carnage of war, from rotting and mangled corpses and skeletons to rats to flies feasting on dead horses to the landscape destruction wreaked by the war. The overcast setting also plays a part in conveying this dull, negative, depressing nature of war, which is why by no coincidence we get the first glimmer of sunlight by the film's end.
For all of its technical mastery, the film also employs some good character material, especially from Scofield's character, who initially doesn't want to go on the mission and comes across as somewhat weak and a pessimist but becomes someone entirely different by the end of the film. And for all of its hard edged and gritty subject matter and violence, the film takes an important moment to release us of all that in a touching scene with a French woman and her infant daughter. It recoils viewers back into our humanity, that underneath all the killings and the madness of war there is beauty and innocence to be found--that however impossible it may seem at the time, there is a spark of purity in the world that's worth going through the emotional and physical trenches and pits of war.
While 1917's story itself is simple and not as awe-inspiring as some previous war films like Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk or Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge, it succeeds in defining itself as its own unique war film--one that's anchored by the best cinematography in its genre since Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan--yes, it's that good. It's as sure fire of a second Oscar win for Deakins that he'll ever have. If you have any doubts, go to your local cinema (preferably IMAX if you have one nearby) and experience this Best Picture frontrunner for yourself.
Written by Anthony Watkins, January 16, 2020