Review: 1917 (2019)

1917. Directed by Sam Mendes. DreamWorks Pictures, 2019.

Premiere Impressions

Typically, I am not one to rush out to war films. War movies too often conflate real-life tragedy with machismo action. There are, of course, plenty of exceptions (it’s hard not to think of Full Metal Jacket [1987] here), but, for me, war films provoke a specific level of anxiety that I find hard to shake. I feel trapped in a war film, not because of the strength of the movie’s technical merits, but because I feel implicated in the real-life violence associated with the action on screen. 1917 is a completely different beast. The film is visceral and difficult, not because it asked me to cheer for bloodshed, but because the film captures the true goal of battle, survival, through the magnificent cinematography on display.

The set-up is simple: two young soldiers, Schofield and Blake, are tasked by Colin Firth’s moustache with delivering a message across enemy territory. If they do not deliver the message to Benedict Cumberbatch’s moustache in time, 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother, will die. All the soldiers need to do is journey through enemy territory to get there. The narrative may not prove especially complex, but the experience is nonetheless effective.

1917’s cinematic expertise lies in the film’s ability to transport the audience into the trenches of World War I. If you keep up with the Hollywood press, you probably have heard by now that the film is edited to appear as one continuous long take. This could be perceived as an awards-baiting gimmick, but the effect is truly magnificent. The transitions are seamless, and the delicate pans of the camera create a floating effect that make the frames come alive. The cinematography is exquisite and is not quite like any other film I’ve ever seen. In a world where casual moviegoers complain about the lack of originality on screen, 1917 is an original.

The film’s themes resonate because of its ability to blur the war genre with horror, an effect that, theoretically, should be inherent in the portrayal of combat on screen. In an early sequence, the protagonists have to traverse through tunnels underneath the German trenches. Only lit by the flashlights of our protagonists, the scene is claustrophobic and tense. Rats scurry around, trying to sneak their way into mysterious bags. The tension builds as Schofield and Blake try to find a way out, always cautious of the potential presence of an enemy. After accidently activating a trap, the young men have mere minutes to escape. Suspenseful scenes like these, of which there are many, also highlight the importance of the camera. The long take format allows the audience to experience the environment, sit uncomfortably in the tension of the moment, and feel the threat of danger when it arrives.

Perhaps my only lingering negative for the film is the fact that, at times, the cinematography blended with the horror too well, creating a survival horror video game-esque aesthetic. There were only a few times when I noticed it (usually when Schofield slowly turned a corner with his gun at the ready), but those brief moments read more cutscene than cinema.

Post-Screening Snippets

  • This is the perfect movie to see if you’re ever interested in coming up with an awesome grungy-rock band name – some of the ones I came up with include: Mangled Horse Carcass, Gap in the Wire, and Dam of Dead Bodies
  • I hope this movie starts a trend where former Game of Thrones actors play family members

The Final Tea

At the time of my screening, Sam Mendes’s 1917 had already won the Golden Globe Award for Drama Motion Picture. Though I put little stake in the Globes’ nominations—the HFPA is known for their not-so-subtle acceptance of luxurious treats from studios looking for nominations—a win usually indicates a level of quality. After seeing the film, I am relatively confident 1917 will win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Now, that does not necessarily mean that I think it is the best film of the year, (Hustlers is still holding on to that distinction), but I think the film’s expert level of craftsmanship can win it the top Oscar.

GRADE: A

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