Oscar Nominations 2020 – FILM REVIEW: 1917 (2019)

Dir: Sam Mendes

Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Orginal Score, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects.

Score: ★★★★☆

In the long and storied history of cinema, war has always been a preoccupation with filmmakers, who’s approach to the subject has seen a wealth of permutations that have included elements of documentary such as Overlord, or Downfall, the lyrical and poetic such as The Thin Red Line, or Apocalpyse Now, stories that wrestle with morality such as in The Grand Illusion or Hacksaw Ridge, or dealing with the mindset of individuals and up close and personal experiences such as American Sniper, The Hurt Locker, Platoon, and The Deer Hunter. In the battle for supremacy between war films, the vast bulk of celluloid seems to have dealt chiefly with WWII and Vietnam. The horrifying fascination with the end results of the Nazi idealogy and America’s humbling in the Vietnam war (twinned with the story of the U.S. undergoing huge pivotal societal changes) will always be a magnet for film makers not just because they are rich in moral complexity but also because the filmmakers in the modern era are all so much closer to these wars in terms of historic distance. The seemingly unrelenting grimness of endless waves of soldiers going “over the top” in the first “great war” seems somewhat one dimensional by comparison to the opportunities for multi faceted morally complex story telling presented by other conflicts (Operation Desert Storm included – see Three Kings or even Sam Mendes’s Jarhead), and with the events of 1917 now being more than a century ago it makes sense that less light would be shined on what can easily be argued as the most senseless of all wars in human history. It’s so one dimensionally bleak it’s hard to tap into.

1917
Mendes directs his troops in the trenches.

As such a new movie about WW1 is a welcome addition to the canon of Hollywood war movies, as in this new and dangerous era it is precisely the highly pronounced senselessness of such a conflict that needs to be remembered as we creep ever further away from the events of the first world war. Clearly a passion project for Mendes (as well as having a faint whiff of Oscar bait about it) 1917 is a grand and dynamic embellishment of war stories that were passed to Mendes via his veteran Grandfather. 1917 is the Saving Private Ryan-esque story of a soldier and companion sent behind enemy lines to call off an attack by 1600 British troops (including the brother of one of the duo sent) who are essentially walking into a German trap. A stunning technical achievement the entire film is digitally stitched together to create the feeling of a movie that plays out in one long shot save for a “blackout” moments when the lead character is knocked unconscious. Gimmicks like this can sometimes hamper a film, and indeed it is, on occasion, distracting, but those moments are far outweighed by the immersive feel the technique creates. The one shot / long uninterrupted takes method been accessed by Hollywood regularly for the best part of 70 years, but it has become exceptionally overused by TV and film in the last 10 years in shows like True Detective etc. as directors sought to expand (as hard as they could) on the steadicam revolution brought about by Kubrick and Scorsese that at this point the method is tremendously overused and sometimes a little dated, but crucially in this case it manages to make the film accessible and vital for a younger audience (those in their 30s and below) as it (mostly in a positive sense) reflects the urgent, adrenaline rush and up close perspective of something akin to a Call Of Duty style video game. The film is entirely engaging and the camera movements are designed to give both a god’s eye view and a sort of first person shooter perspective throughout without ever really separating the two, which is quite an achievement. Even “down” times in the narrative are baited with a sense that a filmmaker with the pedigree of Mende’s caliber is preparing you for the next emotional twist or thrilling battle / running for your life moment. The film’s most rhapsodic section is cinematographer (the almighty) Roger Deakins’s treatment of an escape from a labyrinth of bombed out buildings that is awash with light and shadows, darkness and terror in an awe inspiring sequence that calls to mind the dreamlike oil field / horse sequence from Deakin’s and Mendes previous 2005 war film Jarhead. It’s thrilling and poetic movie and paradoxically sometimes this does the film harm. On occasion the piece’s beautiful (World War 1, beautiful?) veneer of art direction and heart thumping action sequences may be too close to Mendes work on recent James Bond films, which runs the risk of glorifying and making a joyride out of the unimaginable vast horror of the conflict.

1917
Cameras capture another theater style long one shot to be turned into a seamless “one shot” effect across the movie.

The focus on the inner life of the characters is sacrificed for a more general reverence for the “situation”, yet it doesn’t become a slew of meaninglessly stylised set pieces unlike the bizarrely stitched together feeling of Brexit on sea movie Dunkirk, 1917 presented as a faux one shot, is appropriately stitched together to drag you into the film and owes a debt of gratitude not just in part to the theatre style presentation of famous “one shot” classics like Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope, but also to the modern dynamic up close style of Alejandro G. Iñárritu (as such The Revenant is never too far from the mind when watching 1917). Given that to create this “one shot” feel, Mendes has drawn upon his natural home of the theatre to create a series of long shots where the in life timing and placing of dramatic beats created by a theatre director is vital when the film director’s natural ally of the editing room is restricted in such a way. All of Mendes work is beholden to his standing as a theatrical director, 1917 is riddled with it. But despite that, it is a most cinematic of works, and comparative to some of the other big contenders, who whilst being cinematic are never actually going to able to stretch their legs in wide cinema releases. Award contenders such as The Irishman and Marriage Story, or Roma previously suffer greatly from a deficit in public opinion towards them as they will mostly watched on the wholly inappropriate format of Netflix home viewing, robbing them of the vital qualities that make them truly work as cinema. 1917 is a cinematic film, shown in cinemas, and as such is strong contender to take home the Best Picture Oscar (it already scooped the Golden Globes for Best Picture and Director), because… it’s cinema shown in a cinema…madness I know!

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Mendes crafts the stunning labyrinth like escape sequence.

1917 is without question a great cinematic experience that needs to be seen in a theatre, and worthy of award attention, and whilst it is a brilliant film in many ways, it is undoubtedly inferior to some of the other contenders this award season and it’s my feeling it’s failings lie in it’s populist approach, it’s a little too sanctimonious in it’s reverence of the “sacrifice” of the soldiers of the era (most likely a reverence inspired by Mendes respect for his grandfather) and does not adequately to my mind have the emotional gut punch of how shockingly futile and brutal this war was. 1917 whilst a roller coaster ride with an eye on emotional impact it’s ideology is still one that leans ever so slightly to heroism albeit in the most grim of circumstances. For me despite all it’s technical achievements and craft it never quite grasps that the vast majority of those involved in the conflict were less heroes and more victims or survivors of the astoundingly and overtly meaningless, futile, senseless, arrogant, total and utter waste of life that was WW1. It never touches the heights of WW1 movies like The Grand Illusion, Paths of Glory or Gallipoli that so brutally express the horrifying breadth of the conflict through small personal stories in the short time allowed by a feature film. It never quite drills the horror home, leaving you not close enough to the “never again” mantra that WW1 spawned but a little closer to a “that was fun, can we go again” feeling of the Hollywood blockbuster. It does suffer from feeling like an elongated version of Mendes own previous critically lauded big one shot opening Día de Muertos mini movie from his second 007 outing, Spectre. Despite this action / video game ethos, consistently repeated moments of deus ex machina to the point of incredulity plus some gaping plot holes and moments where realism just fly out of the window it’s been almost universally praised by critics, and I agree with much of the praise. But I for one, can’t help have the niggling feeling that as enjoyable as 1917 is, given it’s focus on creating a heart pounding action packed, emotional roller coaster aesthetic it’s not quite going to stand the test of time as a new monument to the cinema of war as some critics are hailing it is. My feeling is, in a few years Mendes achievement may sadly end up feeling as dated as the movies own title is. It’s a great film and undoubtedly worth the watch but the story’s heart plays second fiddle to the thrills and the production design, and it’s emotional core is tacked on almost as though it is just another of Mendes’s long takes, just another necessary function of the movie as opposed to what the movie is actually there to illustrate.

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