The Thin Red Line
1917 is directed and co-written by Sam Mendes and stars George McKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
It ought to be mentioned right out of the gate that I have a high level of enthusiasm for anything and everything by Sam Mendes. While I can't argue that the man should be placed into one of the top tiers of film directors, the ones populated by the likes of Steven Spielberg and Christoper Nolan, I won't deny that I've gotten a great deal of enjoyment out of everything I have seen from him, American Beauty being a film I especially hold near and dear to my heart. Mendes' directorial resume isn't as long as one may think, so he tends to float in and out of my memory bank as I try to keep up with new releases. Anyway, Mendes' film-making style over the years has largely been about taking a relatively straightforward concept and dressing it up into something more complex and thought-provoking than what said concept appears to be on paper, one major criticism being his films are not as smart as they think they are. The one constant, however, that pretty much everyone is in agreement about on Mendes' films is their elegant cinematography. Mendes has had the honor of working with some of the most famous cinematographers in history: Conrad L. Hall and Roger Deakins, the latter of which takes on the cinematography for 1917. So if you've never been a fan of Mendes, chances are I will not be able to use 1917 to sway you into thinking differently about him. What I will advocate for though is 1917 as not just a Sam Mendes film, but as an alluring war film: one that drives us knee-deep into the trenches of World War I and rattles us until we're as shaken as the soldiers on the battlefield.
1917 follows the travels of two young British soldiers: Lance Corporals Will Schofield (MacKay) and Tom Blake (Chapman). General Erinmore (Firth) assigns the two the task of delivering a message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, calling off a planned attack against a retreating German front. One of the soldiers in the 2nd Battalion is Blake's brother Joseph (Madden), and if the message is not delivered on time, the Germans will ambush and likely kill all 1600 men in the Battalion. Schofield and Blake set out on a dangerous journey, where they must make their way past German soldiers, while also enduring the gritty World War I landscape.
Not much meat to the plot, but there doesn't need to be. 1917 falls into the category of experience film: in which the plot is not about going from Point A to Point B, and eventually culminating at Point Z; it's about characters getting through just Points A, B, and C, with the emphasis on the journeys in between Points A, B, and C, and making them as meticulous and memorable as possible. If 1917 was a plot movie, chances are that the film would get by as just an entertaining war picture with some stand-out technical features. Instead, Sam Mendes takes us right into the trenches and asks us, "What was it like, being one of those soldiers, trying to survive among all the blood, sweat, and tears that war inevitably brings?" The movie's heart and soul lies in the hands of its two main soldiers, so their eyes and ears are going to be our tour guides. The one thing they're not going to be able to do is warn us of is if something gruesome or tragic is about to happen, because, well, what kind of war experience would we be getting then?
- The main thing to know going into 1917 is its primary technical decision: shoot the film as one long, continuous shot. Now, it's not entirely accurate to say the film is indeed one, long continuous shot. There is a moment midway through the film when a character passes out where the continuous shot cuts to black. Seconds later, a different shot starts up at a different angle, so the movie is really two continuous shots. Regardless, this is a praiseworthy decision by Roger Deakins, because such lengthy takes help better immerse us into the setting and what the likes of Schofield and Blake are seeing and thinking as they traverse through enemy territory. The cinematography presents the likes of no man's land, a destroyed town, and the British trenches like traps that our characters are trying to escape from, not visual marvels that could enhance a blood-soaked battle. Schofield and Blake are almost seeing everything from a first-person point of view, you know, those views you get in Xbox games like Call of Duty or Destiny. A German soldier, a plane crash, or some kind of explosion: they all feel closer and more intimidating, and the experience is that much more realistic. Deakins never allows a take to stray too far from a character's line of sight, because doing so would rip us away from the experience.
- Thomas Newman is to Sam Mendes what John Williams is to Steven Spielberg. Thomas Newman is also, in my opinion, the most underrated musical composer in modern film history. The fact that the guy has been nominated for fourteen Oscars without a win is almost blasphemous. In the case of 1917, Newman's score does it all: elevate the emotional scenes with softer and slower tunes, and provide an adrenaline-boost to the more action-oriented scenes. What's more, Newman allows his score to never impede on the experience that Mendes and Deakins try to create, because that might not go over too well if watching British soldiers panic in the trenches got drowned out by string instruments and percussion, desperately trying to get your blood pumping. The score is prominent, but enough "in the background" that it never serves as a distraction.
- I don't want to be too critical of the lack of plot, but the fact of the matter is that 1917's bare bones plot makes the film ring a little hollow, at times forcing Mendes and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns to generate filler material. Schofield and Blake have a great deal of "walking and talking", but some of their conversations don't really serve as character development, only as small talk that acts as padding until they reach a spot where something of interest can take place. Then there are other scenes that are stretched as far as possible, even to the point that it doesn't feel like someone's real-world war story. A bunch of soldiers gather together to hear someone sing a song, and no, it's not the final 30-45 seconds of the song; it's the whole gosh darn thing. There's also another scene where a truck gets stuck in mud, and all the soldiers have to get out to push it loose. I suppose you could say this is a "bonding" moment, but considering that nearly all the soldiers pushing the truck are never seen again afterwards, then I'm not sure "bonding time" is the right way to describe this scene. It's one thing to be realistic, but you also have to separate realistic from borderline pointless, and that's where 1917 struggles at times.
Even with some padding, 1917 is an impressively immersive experience, throwing you right into the heart of the World War I trenches and not letting you out until the end credits roll. Roger Deakins' terrific cinematography is one of 2019's most impressive technical achievements, and Thomas Newman is as reliable as ever with another knocked-it-out-of-the-park musical score. Along with great direction from Sam Mendes and top-notch acting from a talented cast, 1917 is the full package, and the best war film to get a wide release since 2016's Hacksaw Ridge. I eagerly await to see what the film may get at the Academy Awards. Maybe finally this will be the year Thomas Newman gets that elusive Oscar victory.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: