“1917” is the most harrowing visceral experience of the year. Now I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for a good war film. I love seeing the epic settings juxtaposed with the intimate characterization. Most war films carry a typical message with them and have a few gory moments to really drive home the realism. The characters have family back home that they were hoping to get back to for Christmas. “1917” has some of the typical war film tropes, but there are so many unique layers to it that make it feel completely fresh. This is far and away Sam Mendes’ best film, and I suspect that is because it is also his most personal.
The last entry in the war genre was “Dunkirk,” directed by Christopher Nolan. Nolan took a unique approach with “Dunkirk,” making the setting and the war itself the major characters of the film. There was hardly any dialogue and virtually zero characterization. Nolan made a remarkably well-crafted film, but it left me unsatisfied. I felt that “Dunkirk” dragged in certain areas because of the focus on the war rather than the characters. In “1917,” Mendes strikes the perfect balance. Despite not knowing much about the two leads, we feel connected to them as we experience their mission first-hand. We get to know them better personally as events unfold, and we learn tidbits about their lives outside of the war. That’s not what is really important though, as I think their resilience and fortitude makes them endearing enough. The camerawork creates a tense and intimate feeling, as though we are on the ground a step behind the main leads. There is hardly ever the feeling of omniscience, and rarely do we get a birds eye view of the action.
Roger Deakins is the greatest cinematographer working today. He deserves more than one Oscar to his name, and I think this could land him his second. While “1917” is edited to make it look like one two hour long shot (aside from one or two obvious cuts), the longest actual take was eight minutes long. That’s still an impressive feat. Blending together a series of six to eight minute takes with practically no visible seams must have been a fiendishly complicated task, but it is magnificent to watch. One nighttime sequence is completely breathtaking, as the shadows act almost as hands coming out to snatch our hero, referred to simply as Corporal. There’s a continuous sense of urgency and peril, and that’s largely due to the cinematography and sound editing. “1917” has some of the most haunting gunfire I’ve ever heard. It sounds like it’s buzzing right past our ears.
George McKay and Dean-Charles Chapman give fantastic performances. The burning fervor in McKay’s face is unforgettable. Their movements are almost dance-like, as scenes had to be so well choreographed and timed to blend together. Set pieces had to be mapped out to precise measurements. For the trenches, the crew would walk along the plots of land reading aloud the dialogue and synchronizing movements before they actually dug into the ground to carve out the sets. Deakins and Mendes would then decide where to put the camera and how much of the set to show at different times. Though the one-shot process is distracting for some and considered to be a gimmick, to me it feels much less a gimmick and much more natural. Editing and cuts are really the gimmicks. We don’t experience life as a multitude of cuts – it’s one long shot.
Is this the year that Thomas Newman finally gets an Oscar? His score for “1917” is probably my favorite of the year. It swells in just the right moments and decrescendos into beautiful little themes to accompany the most touching scenes. Mendes and crew have really outdone themselves with what is undoubtedly the best war film of the decade. Practically every British actor working today is in it. A strong sense of pride and passion exudes through every minute of its tense run time.