Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Movie Review: 1917

What a spectacular technical achievement is Sam Mendes's latest film 1917.  This simple story of a pair of World War I soldiers tasked with crossing No Man's Land to call off an impending British attack that will surely end in disaster is presented in a way that's so visceral and mesmerizing you won't be able to stop thinking about it.

Based loosely on stories told by Mendes's grandfather (a WWI soldier himself), 1917 is staged as one unbroken shot (there are edits here and there but except for one instance they're seamless), creating a sense of claustrophobia, tension and inevitability.  The film opens on our two protagonists dozing in a field, roused and called into the trenches to be briefed on their mission.  From the opening moments the camera drags us into the action, and for the next two hours we're never given a reprieve.  The technique forces the audience to become participants in these harrowing events, as Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield crawl through corpse-laden fields of mud and barbed wire, navigate abandoned German trenches, dodge crashing aircraft, and so on.  I won't say more about the story, as it's best to go in cold.  Were these events presented in a traditional way this film would perhaps not be as engaging, but that's sort of the point.  Like Saving Private Ryan, 1917 is about the "how," moreso than the "what."  It is designed to make the audience experience the film rather than just watch it.

The film's lead actor George MacKay gives an understated but note-perfect performance, reluctant to be a part of the mission at first, then determined to complete it at all costs, no matter the increased weight heaped upon his shoulders.  It's not a flashy performance but it's exactly the right one for this film, and mostly conveyed with facial expressions and physicality.
But the true star here is legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose camera is seemingly unbound by gravity or spacial restrictions.  Our vantagepoint weaves in and out of dugouts and vehicles, up and down stairs, through crowds of soldiers, even underwater.  How the filmmakers managed to stage and choreograph each shot is beyond me; this is some of the most mindboggling cinematography I've ever seen.

Sam Mendes burst on the scene two decades ago as his debut film(!) American Beauty cleaned up at the Oscars (winning Best Picture, Director, Actor, Screenplay and Cinematography).  Twenty years later he's made another film the Academy has fallen in love with.  Like SPR and Paths of Glory1917 is an astounding war film and a career accomplishment, thanks largely to its unique, wholly immersive execution and commitment to authenticity.  It's a movie you need to see on the big screen.

I give the film **** out of ****.

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