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War is hell – ‘1917’

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I’m always a little suspicious when I hear a movie being lauded as a “technical achievement.” Not because I don’t value the technical aspects of filmmaking – quite the opposite, actually. It’s more that I worry that a film relies on technique over narrative, rather than letting each elevate the other. It doesn’t matter how beautifully a film is made if we don’t care about the tale being told.

“1917,” directed by Sam Mendes from a script he co-wrote alongside Krysty Wilson-Cairns, was that movie. I’d been hearing for months about the film’s aesthetic and cinematographic ambition, the fact that the entire thing was constructed to look like a single unbroken take. Impressive, sure, but if we aren’t engaged by the story and the characters … who cares?

Turns out I needn’t have worried, because while yes, it is an incredible technical achievement that elicits legitimate awe in spots, it is also a compelling story, as we follow along on a seemingly impossible mission laid at the feet of young men who can’t possibly be prepared for such demands, yet ultimately venture forth in an effort to do what’s right.

On April 6, 1917, two British soldiers doze in a French field as they wait between battles. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, “The King”) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay, “Nuclear”) are called forward – the higher-ups are here and want Blake and Schofield to report.

After they navigate the hundreds of feet of trenches, they make their way to their meeting, where they find themselves in the presence of General Erinmore (Colin Firth, “Mary Poppins Returns”), who has a very particular mission for the pair. It seems that the Germans have withdrawn, leading one of the commanders to seek to press the advantage. However, intelligence reveals that the Germans aren’t retreating – they’re setting a trap.

General Erinmore tells them that they are to take orders to stand down and deliver them into the proper hands. To do so, however, they will have to cross over the blasted carnage of the countryside, littered with shell craters and barbed wire and crumbling trenches … and corpses. Lots of corpses. And the pending attack is set to go off at dawn, leaving Blake and Schofield less than 24 hours to carry out their mission.

From the moment they go over the top of the trench and head out across the utter destruction of the seemingly abandoned battlefield. They’re left to gingerly navigate around the multitude of obstacles – both real and imagined – that face them along the way. And while many of the dangers they face are passive, there are plenty of active dangers as well. After all, while the German forces may have been pulled back, some soldiers might well have stayed behind.

Confronted at every turn by something nigh-insurmountable, the pair commit wholly toward the completion of the mission … even if only one of them is still standing at the end.

In truth, one can’t really separate the technical audacity of “1917” from the rest of the experience. Frankly, I’m struggling to recall a more purely impressive filmmaking feat from recent years. Obviously, the film isn’t a single take, but man oh man, it sure LOOKS like one. And as someone programmed to seek out the seams, I was on the lookout … and I couldn’t see them. That is, I could tell where they happened, but only because it was where they HAD to happen. They certainly didn’t show.

It’s a testament to the stylistic and technical acumen of Mendes and (especially) legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins that “1917” works at all. All of these tracking shots, brought together so cleanly as to have any delineation disappear. It allows the experience to feel as though it plays out in real time (there’s one jump; you’ll know it when you see it); you’re trudging through the mud and blood alongside these two scared, yet dutiful young men. Claustrophobic trench shots, explosion-laden battlefield shots, quiet moments and loud, ridiculous and sublime – all of it unspooling steadily and continuously. Remarkable stuff.

The nature of the stylistic choices necessitates a relatively small number of extended character arcs. Really, we don’t get to know anyone aside from Schofield and Blake, and even that knowledge is limited. It means that a lot is asked of the actors … and they rise to meet the challenge. MacKay is mesmerizing as Schofield; we watch as he wades through war’s horrors and mundanities, with periods of quietude punctuated by frantic instances of survival panic. He is a haunted man; you can see the reflections of the ghosts of the past in his eyes, as well as the ghosts yet to come. Chapman brings an odd combination of gregariousness and grim resolve; it’s a strange mixture, but one that proves compelling. They’re great together as well.

And while the supporting players aren’t around long, there are some prominent faces dropping in for a scene or two. There’s Firth, of course. Benedict Cumberbatch shows up at one point with a magnificent mustache. Mark Strong is here, because could you really make this movie and NOT have him in it? And Andrew Scott puts up maybe the best supporting turn in the entire movie, despite being in the film for just a couple of minutes.

Despite its late entry into theaters, “1917” has long been viewed as a major contender for this awards season. It’s got a couple of Golden Globes already in hand and received double-digit Oscar nominations. That’s a lot of accolades – and it deserves every single one of them.

Thanks to the efforts of Mendes, Deakins, MacKay and the rest, we’ve gotten a movie for the ages. I’ve never seen anything quite like “1917” – and neither have you.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 15 January 2020 09:13

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