Directed By Sam Mendes
Starring – Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays
The Plot – Schofield (MacKay) and Blake (Chapman), two young British soldiers during the First World War, are given a seemingly impossible mission. With time against them, they must deliver a message, deep in enemy territory, that will stop their own men, and Blake’s own brother, walking straight into a deadly trap.
Rated R for violence, some disturbing images, and adult language
– Roger that. At this point, we should understand that what Cinematographer Roger Deakins does with a lens is produce these immersive experiences that tiptoe the boundaries of magic within a fictional capacity. In such regards, the work he commands in “1917” is a cinematic achievement that puts him as the front-runner for a back-to-back Oscar win in 2020. This is a film that presents itself as one continuous shot throughout the entirety of the picture, and while it’s easy to see where the edits come into play in such a gimmick, the varied levels of expertise in fluid camera movements and ever-changing scenery craft a perfect level of pacing for the film, that keep it from ever feeling repetitious. In addition to this, the decision to format this specifically for IMAX theaters, complete with a 1.90:1 ratio leaves no shortage of breathtaking scenery and environmental articulation, which better helps place us in the shoes of these honored men. Deakins uses valuable screen time to depict everything from weather elements, to tight claustrophobia, to even choreographed navigation, and it better conveys this never-ending feeling of war that haunts our two leads regardless of how fast they try to distance themselves from it.
– Elaborate set designs. It’s easy to overlook the interior designs of a war film, primarily because they rarely ever play this big of a part in painting such a devastating and gloomy picture in the overall scheme of things. But because Mendes understands the importance of environments weighing heavily into the psychology of the setting, he throws as much at the screen as possible, which in turn mentally constructs the narrative for what may have taken place here before we came onto this story. The props of human and animal bodies, as well as a littering of shotgun shells and assorted other ammo cement an idea of resonating doom that has enveloped the land whole, making it a shell of the peaceful surroundings that it inevitably once was. However, easily my favorite detail is the bending trenches, which twist and turn with direction almost as equally as it compresses throughout many caves and temporary residences for its crews. There’s such a constant presence in the way that it overtakes the attention of the screen, that it frequently illustrates an unshakeable frailty that these men are living through, where confinement is all that keeps them from torture or even death.
– Thunderously riveting. This is primarily in the echoing sound design and emotionally complex compositions of the film’s musical score by Thomas Newman, which give the presentation underlined urgency through the many conflicts its duo faces. Color me impressed with the way music and sound is deposited throughout the film, because it is typically being played against the expectations of the audience, giving it an anything but telegraphed rendering that captivates the uncertainty of war. During volume increasing intensity, when it feels like a major climatic revelation will take place, it usually passes. During the downtime of war monotony, it throws in a wrench or in this case, occasional airplane, to keep audiences on their toes, and remind them to never take their eyes or ears off of the screen. Newman’s range of emotional velocity takes shape in a series of resonating impulses, and gives so many of these intimate scenes between two people a constant big stakes feeling of inescapable paranoia that energetically drains them and us for the taking.
– Voice of the voiceless. The profound commentary of war is elicited through the eyes of its many patrons, who the film makes no qualms about capturing their side of things. Being someone who is anti-war myself, I commended this film for doubling down on a mentality that many men shared while fighting a war that they had no interest in. Throughout the unraveling of the screenplay, we not only learn that Schofield has a jaded past because of the way war has changed him, but we also see and hear it in the many strangers we come across, who cohesively echo a stirring unity that is anything but inspiring when compared to what we’ve come to believe against the war jargon propaganda. Mendes shows compassion for the innocent, who are being forced to kill against their will, and never demeans them, nor polarizes them because of such. He establishes regret within the World War I narrative, and does so while capturing everything about the environment that makes it anything but desirable.
– Natural lighting. What’s easily the most impressive aspect to instilling a continuous shot scheme to the movie’s presentation, is the wrestling with natural lighting between scenes to reach a perfect level of continuity between transitions. This not only resulted in crews stalling quite frequently between the three month shooting schedule, but also created some unforeseen challenges in the eyes of stitching together many different days in real time for two days within the lives and world of these conflicted soldiers. For my money, it succeeds, as the consistency between frames grants a believability in construction that never clues us into any hints of counterfeit connectivity. On top of this, the use of shadow-play and mundane color scheme to the film fit its gleamingly decadent vibe of cultural decay, and offer no shortage of attention-stealing scenes, where anything feels possible in the distant darkness or fog that envelopes its respective scenes.
– Pivotal characterization. As to where a film like “Dunkirk” depicted characters that revolved around a war, the opposite seems to be prominent in “1917”. It’s not that the war isn’t important in the film, because it’s the unmistakable setting for the movie, it’s just that it values a characters-first approach, which allows you to feel more invested because of such. In fact, there are only spare action sequences throughout this film, choosing instead to build the film around the friendship of Schofield and Blake, doubling down on all of their dreams, fears, and virtues. What makes them intriguing is not only that they are two completely different personalities of characters, but also that they really are all they have in this world of feuding countries. It casts importance when seen at its most basic core of friendship, and gives the movie a much-needed layer of sentimentality that never hinders the urgency or vulnerability of their predicaments.
– Flawless direction. Mendes has made his name with films like “Blue Ruin” or “Skyfall”, but I believe his work in “1917” will forever live on in infamy. Aside from the technical treasures that he unloads that I previously mentioned above, it’s Sam’s patience in storytelling, as well as his amplification for anxiety, which really stand out front-and-center, and captures originality for a film genre that previously felt like it ran out of steam ten years prior to this installment. This is everything that filmmaking should be; characters revealed through action, emotional stakes revealed throughout behavior, and action sprinkled in when it’s absolutely necessary. On the latter, this keeps its inclusion fresh and continuously impactful, but beyond that it proves that there are other elements to a war genre that makes it one of the more endearing folders in all of cinematic history. Mendes provides such emphasis in something as typical as a character balancing his way on a beam across a body of water, and outlines each scene with an air of importance that supplants permanency to its involvement of the constantly progressing narrative. Mendes strongest quality is the humanity that he instills throughout the picture, and it provides endless heart to the film, which keeps it from feeling like an unbalanced gimmick with the unique technical achievement.
– Stimulating performances. This is not a negative knock to these actors, but the casting decision of relative unknowns like MacKay and Chapman keep the focus where it needs to be without creating an unnecessary distraction in seeing these characters as anything but the big names that would’ve portrayed them. In making such a decision, it pays off wonderfully, as these two men conjure up such endless range for immensely different circumstances towards fleshing out their characters. For MacKay, it’s his reserved personality and strength in determination which make him a protagonist we easily invest in. With each passing moment, his walls of composure fall one-by-one, and by the end of the film, he’s hardly the determined man we came to meet in the film’s opening minute. In contrast, Chapman’s Blake lives and breathes by the family mentality, which more times than not gets him into trouble. He’s not a naive man, or even an idiot, he just sometimes struggles with seeing the bigger picture, and it makes his honorable intentions sometimes more difficult to see because of it. Aside from the two leads, the A-list cameos of Mark Strong, Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch presented a temporarily big screen feel without their appearances feeling detrimental to the focus of the scene. They each play their parts considerably, and do a huge service to Mendes, who scatters them periodically throughout the film.
– Resolution. NO SPOILERS HERE. What I found so rewarding about this film’s final moments is the duality of giving the audience the satisfaction associated throughout the journey we’ve been on with these characters, as well as this nihilistic approach within the meaning of so much that is taking shape. Because of these two factors weighing so heavily in the foreground of our characters’ well being, there’s a kind of lingering inevitability that coincides with Schofield and Blake’s journey, feeling like an equally fast tracker that constantly reminds us of this race against the clock and what is at stake. There’s one scene that is shown so prominently throughout the trailers for the movie, but its meaning here doubles its importance when given context, and makes so much of the film’s closing moments feel like an uphill climb that throws a wrench of devastation each time we feel like we’ve made it one step higher. I was not only satisfied with the finality of it all, but also with the way that the final shot practically mirrors that of the opening shot, which only adds further to the war being a continuous cycle mentality that the visual and thematic elements of the film hinge on.
– Weight in placement. One spare critique that I had for the film was its lack of emphasis for the war surrounding this very compartmentalized event, that could’ve used establishing for anyone not familiar with the vastly forgotten World War I. Something as simple as a title screen before the movie, detailing what has transpired previously, or a post-credit text to coincide with the one Mendes includes while paying tribute to his late grandfather, a WWI vet in his own right, could’ve better helped with where this story plays into in the grand scheme of things. People will disagree with this because this story is just about two men in particular, but I feel like the film does a grave disservice in pointing out what about this war made it different from the frequently captured World War II, or any movie centering around Vietnam. This film rarely does any kind of job illustrating what is taking place outside of this concise narrative, and it leaves much to be desired about one of the very few chances that a film had in capturing the state of the world outside of this very particular setting.
My Grade: 9/10 or A