by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 89% Certified Fresh
PLOT: Two British soldiers during the First World War are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep into enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, including one of the two soldiers’ brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.
Bear with me for a second…I promise I’ll actually get to the movie in a second.
I’m not a professional movie critic. I write reviews simply because it amuses me to do so, and because one of my friends made it possible for him and I to post our reviews in an online forum. For about two months, though, I haven’t written a single review. I pondered this with Marc a little while ago, and the only reason I could come up with was that I didn’t feel INSPIRED to write something.
Not that I haven’t seen good movies in those two months. Waves, Uncut Gems, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Jumanji: The Next Level, Frozen 2, Little Women, Bombshell, maybe one or two others – they were all good, even great. (In the case of Uncut Gems and Waves, I’d even call them “must-see” events.) But I never felt compelled to run home and put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. I simply felt that I had nothing to contribute where those movies were concerned.
Well, tonight I saw 1917, and now I have to say, this is a different case altogether.
For anyone who’s not quite aware of why this movie is so special, aside from it just being really good, 1917 was hyped as being told in one single shot with a camera that follows two soldiers through battlefields and countrysides as they attempt to deliver an important message to a distant company of English soldiers. No cuts to different angles, no cuts at all, in fact. (Actually, there IS a single cut, but more on that later.)
While I originally felt it was a bit of a stunt to get it noticed at Oscar time (remember Birdman ?), after seeing the movie it was abundantly clear that this was no mere trick to dazzle an audience with. This specific story is particularly suited to this specific method of filming. It forces the audience to empathize with these two soldiers immediately, and only them. I was reminded for some reason of Saving Private Ryan, and a line spoken by Tom Sizemore: “This time the mission is a man.” Well, this time, the men are the mission, and the mission is paramount. The single-take strategy has the uncanny ability to put us in the shoes of these soldiers more so than many other war films. You feel like you’re right there in the mud with the empty artillery shells and the corpses and the rats.
And that’s the supreme achievement of the movie: its ability to put us there and KEEP us there for two hours without ever calling attention to the fact that, “Hey, we haven’t cut yet and it’s been over a half hour!” A lot of that has to do with camera placement and movement and, of course, the actors’ ability to keep us engaged.
But one thing that I kept noticing throughout the movie was the small details. I’m not going to remember them all, but they included:
- At one point, the British soldiers walk through an abandoned German bunker. In a throwaway detail, the name “KLARA” is seen scrawled on one of the walls. The camera doesn’t focus on it, but it just passes by.
- We encounter a group of British soldiers, and of them is a Sikh. The other soldiers are doing bad impressions of their superior officers, but the Indian’s impression is clearly better than the other Englishmen, with proper diction, upper-class accent, everything.
- In the British trenches, various sections have unique names. The one I remember most clearly is “Paradise Alley.”
- As they walk, one of our two heroes notices cherry trees, and he quickly rattles off several different varieties of cherries. He knows them because his family has an orchard back home.
- An intense scene where someone has to literally wade through dozens of corpses.
- In one remarkable scene, the movie pauses to listen to a song. Fighting is imminent, death may arrive at any moment, but for a brief moment, everything stops. It’s a brilliant moment…almost holy.
Little things like that. The reason I bring them up is because some of them seemed unnecessary to the story, but they colored the story so that it felt more real than most. And the closing credits reveal that this movie is based on stories told to director Sam Mendes by his grandfather, who served in World War One. So many, if not all, of those little details were probably one hundred percent REAL details, the kind of details that could only be remembered by someone who was there.
Another reason the movie is so suspenseful is because we’ve become subtly programmed to believe that, in a war movie, the ending can’t be too Hollywood; otherwise, it’s not real enough. The soldiers must deliver a message. Will they even survive long enough to deliver the message? Assuming they do, will the officers receiving the message even follow the order? A civilian appears at one point…will they live? They engage in combat…who will live and who will die? I was on edge the whole movie because I never really felt “safe”, which was EXACTLY the kind of feeling you want when you’re watching a war movie. In my opinion.
Now, about that whole single-shot thing. There actually IS one cut, a SINGLE cut, during the whole movie. You’ll know it when it happens. But when you’ve seen as many movies as I have, you’ll also notice “invisible wipes”, where the camera passes by something in the foreground – a pillar, or a rock, or a tree – that comes in between the camera and the person/object being filmed. Using clever editing and lighting, you can cut two shots together using that pillar/rock/tree as the splicing point. And there is a LOT of that going on in this movie.
I’m not taking anything away from the achievement of the film, it’s spectacular. It’s just something I noticed that I could not UN-notice for the duration of the film. A minor quibble, nothing more.
1917 is definitely a top contender for Best Picture of 2019. I have only seen a handful of World War I movies, but this is certainly one of the very best. I’d rank it up there with Kubrick’s Paths of Glory any day.