by Alan Yudman
If you know anything about World War I, you know that it was trench warfare. Each battle, a fight for feet if not inches. In 1917, Sam Mendes breaks away from that and chooses to tell a very personal and action-packed story about a mission to save 1,600 men.
Most of what you have probably heard about the movie revolves around its style. Mendes and Director of Photography Roger Deakins decided to create a “one shot” experience. The camera follows the two British soldiers from the first moment when they are trying to get some rest in a field in France until the end of the movie. It is a remarkable choice. You notice it at first, but after a while you don’t. It really brings the audience into the world of Blake and Schofield. This is the way we go through life. Things come at us, we dodge obstacles (not bombs, rats or falling German planes), we hold conversations. It works so well not just in the slower scenes where the pair are walking across no man’s land, but in the action sequences as well. It adds a sense of uncertainty and expectation that makes you feel a part of the film.
Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns created this screenplay from stories told to Mendes by his grandfather. There is humor, tragedy and even in the slower parts it feels real and well thought out. The story has no exposition to speak of, at least not at the outset. But you slowly learn more about the two soldiers as the movie goes along. Again, it gives you the feeling of being the third person on the team. Like you are a recruit assigned to accompany these veterans.
The acting is first rate. Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay work well together. You believe them as war “buddies”. The small roles populated by top tier British actors Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch are fantastic. But the standout here is MacKay. His desperation to complete the mission while conveying a sense of exasperation and exhaustion with the whole war is fantastic. He makes all the right choices. He is compassionate, brave, determined and slightly raw. I loved this performance. I wish the Academy would look beyond the usual suspects when selecting best actor nominees. They are missing some fabulous performances.
The score by Thomas Newman fits so well. It doesn’t get in the way, but brings the appropriate gravitas at the right times. This is a flawless movie. I can see why it is getting so much love during awards season. In another year, I’d select it as best picture. But this year it has to compete against PARASITE and LITTLE WOMEN. I loved those two films more than any other this year. I will be disappointed if 1917 wins, but not GREEN BOOK disappointed. This is a film worthy of the accolades it receives.