There’s always a special kind of anticipation when it’s announced a top director is taking on the war genre. Think Nolan and Dunkirk, Gibson and Hacksaw Ridge, and Eastwood and American Sniper in recent years. The genre is so conducive to displaying what filmmakers strive to put to the screen every time they make the film- emotion, morality, the human condition- providing directors with a chance to make something meaningful that people will see. Sam Mendes is not quite a household name, but when three of your eight directorial credits are American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Skyfall, you surely fall into that category of top director.
Ostensibly, Mendes has approached his foray into war in a gimmicky manner by employing the best of the best in the cinematography world, Roger Deakins, and making the film appear to be one continuous take. There’s a lot of focus on long takes lately and while I appreciate them as much as the next person, I do also begin to question why the method is being employed. Is the story not strong enough to maintain interest without? Is the director not confident he can handle the material without the distraction of a contrivance?
Thankfully it is clear quite early in 1917 that this is an example of the director using long takes to enhance his film and absorb his audience, not to distract. Mendes’ first attempt at screenwriting (with Krysty Wilson-Cairns), it’s not the cleanest script in terms of dialogue or plotting, but the story, based on stories from Mendes’ own grandfather, does hold water and does stand up as something worth telling, one take or not. It is a quite straight-forward race against the clock story, as Lance Corporals Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are instructed to deliver a message to the Second Battalion to stop their planned attack, in order to prevent an ambush from the Germans and the deaths of sixteen hundred men, including Blake’s brother.
Where 1917 works really well, in spite of the flaws in the script, is in the two central characters. Neither of them are defining characters of the genre, but they have enough personality and relatability to stand out from the pack, and certainly from the characters in the film 1917 is being most commonly compared to, Dunkirk. Blake is your fairly typical young British lad of the time, quick with a quip and keen to serve, and desperate to get to his older brother. Chapman had some decent material to work with as Tommen Baratheon in Game of Thrones, but here gets a chance to break free from that and show he’s got plenty more to offer. His lively performance is crucial in involving the audience early in the piece and I don’t think the value of that should be underestimated.
A little older and far more experienced is George MacKay, who eventually assumes control of the film and gets put through Leo in The Revenant-levels of physical trauma. MacKay is an interesting actor with a strong catalogue already to his name and a bright future ahead of him. His Will is more withdrawn than Tom; he clearly has mental battle scars already and is hellbent on separating his war life with his home life. It is an intriguing character and with the immense physicality added on top, a quite difficult role. In my view, MacKay has really slipped under the radar this year, as his performance is as worthy of the accolades as anyone else.
Of course it is impossible to review this film without talking about the cinematography. Probably best known for going 13 nominations at the Oscars without a win until he finally broke through two years ago with Blade Runner 2049, Deakins is a veritable icon of the field at this point and is the perfect man to take on a job of this scale. I’ll admit there were a few moments where the tracking shots made me think about the making of the film as opposed to engrossing me in the story, but it works more often than not because of Deakins’ brilliant eye and the attention to detail from Mendes and his team. Deakins gets a chance to really show off when the story moves into night, having fun with the red sky and fire, both of the literal and gun variety.
The production and sound design accolades have come in thick and fast and every one of them is deserved. Weeks of painstaking preparation ensure every intricate detail is absolutely spot on, while the clarity and timing of every footstep or gunshot constantly keeps the audience on edge. One particular moment in an abandoned German bunker produced a jump that would make any horror director proud. Thomas Newman’s score is at times a little intrusive, however when it works it is excellent, notably during the film’s final moments.
Mendes is likely to have his second Best Picture winner come the 92nd Academy Awards on February 9th, which will come with the backlash that follows. It’s inevitable, only Moonlight has avoided it in this internet age, and for all its brilliance, this is no Moonlight. However, it won’t matter one bit. 1917 works because it was made with care and precision and possesses a beating heart. Audiences have responded not to the tracking shots, but to the story of two young men in a horrible situation, which just so happens to also be one of the year’s best productions.