The deck seemed stacked against Sam Mendes’s 1917 from the get go. The trailer for the World War I thriller bared a heavy resemblance to Christopher Nolan’s recent time-centric WWII thriller, Dunkirk, and the big marketing buzz focused on the fact that Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins made the film to appear as if it were all in one continuous shot. The gimmickry of this idea, combined with the focus on the importance of the clock and the anonymity of the lead actors all made 1917 feel like a derivative imitation of other, likely better, war films.
There are stock elements to the story, about two British soldiers tasked with getting across a dangerous stretch of enemy-occupied countryside in France in order to deliver a message that could save thousands of allied troops, but Mendes manages to rise above the cliches. He delivers an immediate, compelling story that is definitely driven by plot, but elevated beyond its undeniable technical merits by the humanity of it all, and a breathless central performance from George MacKay.
MacKay plays Lance Corporal Schofield, who is unwittingly pulled into the story by his friend, LC Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). Blake and Schofield are summoned to the desk of General Erinmore, played in a beefy cameo by Colin Firth. General Erinmore orders the two young men to deliver a message to a battalion preparing to invade the German enemy some ten miles away: they’re walking into a trap set by the Huns, and if they don’t stand down then there will be untold casualties. For an added bit of motivation, Blake’s older brother is among the men who will be sent to their certain death. They have until morning to get there, and the ten miles between them and the battalion is beyond treacherous.
The clock is ticking, and the plot is in motion, and now we are with these two men as they traverse trenches full of tired soldiers, and a wide-open landscape littered with dead men, dead cattle, and buildings destroyed by explosion and gunfire. They are exposed, and you can feel the looming possibility of death lurking around every ridge. It’s a bleak stretch of land, one Mendes and Deakins show with great detail and texture. Decomposing bodies jut out from muddy craters, rats feast, and razor-wire fences add severity to what was certainly beautiful French countryside before the Great War destroyed the earth with bombs and blood.
Anyone who knows this movie exists has seen the virtuoso shot of MacKay running across an open field as bombs explode at his back and bodies fall, but 1917 is so much more than technical wizardry. A great deal of the film’s first two acts work efficiently to give our grunt soldiers depth and humanity. Through brief, mundane conversations, mentions of family, of duty, we get a sense that these are three-dimensional human beings in unimaginable circumstances. World War I is generations removed from modern society, over 100-years in the past now, and Mendes captures the foreign nature of this world in every frame.
As for the one-shot decision, it is far more than just technical schadenfreude. The tracking shot, which is clearly broken up at certain points and movements, lends an immediacy to the mission at hand, and makes everything feel more urgent than it already is. Personally, I forgot about the tracking shot, or trying to spot the cuts only a few minutes in. That’s the power of 1917. What stands out more than any cinematography – which is great, make no mistake – is the performance of MacKay, the heart and soul of the story. The wide eyed young man, whose largest role prior to this was playing Viggo Mortensen’s son in the silly Captain Fantastic, is a strong presence at the core of this exhausting journey. He may not get an Oscar nomination, but he will absolutely start to show up in bigger roles, in bigger films moving forward.
The confounding thing about 1917 is that just a week ago, the film felt like a whiff. It was an afterthought, “Mendes copying Nolan,” et al., and nobody really gave it a chance. Then it won best picture at the Golden Globes, and it opened some eyes. Not that the Globes are any indicator of how the Oscar nominations will shake out this Monday since the voting bodies for the two awards are different, but it’s definitely an indicator than general audiences slept on this film and it’s almost a shoe in for a half-dozen nominations, including Best Picture. After last weekend’s success, and a likely nomination this Monday morning, 1917 has become a deserving Oscar frontrunner.