By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – January 8. 2020)
How about I just stop the review right there? I might as well, because that was my reaction as I walked out of the movie, which begs to be seen on the biggest, loudest, most technically powerful screen and sound system imaginable. I wondered why it was one of the few movies that didn’t arrive in my mailbox as a screener this awards season, but after seeing it, I realize why. It wouldn’t have done it justice. That might not be why it didn’t…
…but it’s why I’m glad it didn’t.
Folks, I’m not even the biggest war movie buff, as I feel so many of them have gotten it right, not to mention shows like Band of Brothers or The Pacific, that there’s just not much road left untrod. Dunkirk a few years ago stood out to me, which shouldn’t come as a surprise due to my ridiculous affinity with Christopher Nolan, but admittedly, I have never watched it a second time. While 1917 isn’t an infinitely rewatchable movie, it’s a fantastic film on every level, and earns my highest recommendation of the year, falling on the number two slot in my 2019 list, behind only the tale of Rick Dalton, Cliff Booth, and Sharon Tate.
Sam Mendes has done some outstanding directorial work in his career, with Skyfall being the top of the heap for me, but 1917 takes it to another level. The movie itself can’t be discussed without talking about its biggest and most ballyhooed feature, the single camera shot. While it’s much more complicated than that, the effect done by the maneuvering of the cameras and the angles makes the movie appear to run, start to finish, without a single camera cut.
Thus, we don’t cut from face to face during dialogue, or from persons and subjects to buildings or vehicles. Instead, the camera just moves as if we’re walking, running, leaping alongside Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). It looks like the camera just never turns off, which is accomplished in a variety of ways, but one of them are some exceedingly long shots that cover a lot of ground. It makes the viewer feel like he or she is in the movie, in the fight, on the run, attempting to fulfill the objective along with our protagonists.
Get a letter from General Arinmore (Colin Firth) to the 2nd battalion of the Devonshire Regiment that contains instructions to call off the planned attack on the Hindenburg line, which intel has proven is a trap by the Germans, who appeared to be on the run. Blake and Schofield don’t have much time and they go alone, also knowing that at any moment, the “abandoned” German outposts and front lines might not be abandoned at all. If they don’t get the letter to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) by dawn, the Germans will ambush and likely kill 1600 British troops.
The stakes are high and the dangers on the road to Mackenzie’s position and to the battalion are as well. This movie, because of how it’s shot, the effect it wants to give off, and the fact that only two soldiers were picked to perform the task, sometimes feels like a much more action-packed, intense Castaway (but this is far better), because there are broad stretches where we only see those two navigating the environment. However, we’re basically the third member of the crew, and the suspense from moment to moment is so strong that it threatens to break you in half.
1917 is emotional, it’s riveting, and somehow, it’s one of the most beautiful movies in recent memory. While much of the landscape is war torn, fires blaze bright and the various views that don’t cut away simply welcome you in, then absorb your mind, and overcome your senses. I was blown away just SEEING and FEELING this movie, before you even get to how the story plays out and the various highs and (far more) lows of the trek across the war zone. MacKay is terrific, and he has to be, and Chapman is awfully good as well. These two play off each other well, and the characters are real in that Schofield is apprehensive and isn’t just gung-ho about what might be a suicide mission. Blake has personal reasons to get that letter to its destination, plus it’s their duty. But, they behave and react believably, which makes them more sympathetic and approachable for the audience.
As good as it looks, as much as Sam Mendes should win Best Director for how it’s executed, not to mention he also co-wrote the script, it sounds unbelievable. This score, folks, is on the short list of the decade. Thomas Newman’s music is perfect, it’s haunting when it needs to be, almost serene when it needs to be, but it balances between the two constantly. You’ll begin to enjoy it and then a note hits that reminds you of the circumstances on screen, and then you enjoy it even more, because the richness exudes from every pore.
It’s one minute shy of two hours long, which is perfect. It could have been longer but didn’t need to be, and it also doesn’t worry about any piece of the story that doesn’t need to be told. There are no side stories, there are no other things going on that we actually see. What we know is these two young Lance Corporals had to get this one job done, so they were singularly focused. As a result, so are we. We are so invested in that singular success (we hope), that we don’t even care. There is nothing to distract you from the immediacy and the microsecond shifts from exhale to HOLY CRAP, we’re in trouble.
It’s gorgeous, the two leads are incredible, the music is truly phenomenal, the visual accomplishment and achievement it represents aren’t things you walk away and forget about, and it’s a Best Picture nominee without any doubt. There are many years it would get my award, but I liked ONE film a little bit more. But that’s it. Everything else gets pushed down a notch. While it won’t be the one I’ll rewatch the most from the year, it might be the one, along with Knives Out and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, that I recommend most. You have to see this. There is some language, but nothing that problematic. Some f-bombs, but honestly, there’s not THAT much dialogue to begin with, which makes sense considering the way the movie lays out.
It’s war, so you know what that entails and you should expect that going in, but your teenaged kids can accompany you without much problem. This is Sam Mendes at his best. It’s extraordinary. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it. Whatever it wins, I’m not going to be upset about it. I’m surprised MacKay isn’t getting more attention, but I’ll be glad to give him his due. He’s just terrific.
So is 1917. Go see this movie. As soon as you can. And expect to leave with your jaw on the floor.