War movies aren’t new and they’re not uncommon either. Dating back almost all the way to the beginning of motion picture history, some of the best and most iconic films of all time come from this genre such as Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket…just to name a few. Human history has been rife with conflict so, naturally, there’s a certain preoccupation with war. In 2019 alone, there were more than a dozen such movies made around the world. Due to more and more films get made under that umbrella, creating a unique cinematic experience within that genre has become increasingly difficult but it’s not impossible. Thanks to a wildly ambitious vision, simple but heartfelt storytelling, and incredible execution, 1917 is that evolutionary jump for the genre and beyond.
To say this film was a breathtaking achievement in filmmaking would be a disservice. It is difficult to even begin to explain just how difficult it was to make this style film. Director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) never shied away from his approach to telling this story that he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful). Their screenplay must have been pretty conceptually robust in terms of scale and style but, in order to capture what trench warfare was like during World War I, this had to be told from a very intimate and up-close perspective. To help fulfill his vision, Mendes turned to frequent collaborator and one of the all-time great cinematographers, Roger Deakins (Shawshank Redemption, Blade Runner 2049).
The “follow shot” isn’t a new technique but it has never been used on this scale before and the results were nothing short of astonishing. Just to give you an idea, the opening shot…not the opening scene…is about 40-minutes long before there’s a cut. Yeah, that’s right! This crew should teach a class on the sheer breadth of engineering and rigging that went into the camera work for this film. They also had to rely solely on natural light sources which, in some instances, meant, there wasn’t any illumination and the scenes were shot with flashlights and flares. It came off so effortlessly but sucked the audience in right away and rarely ever let you go, even for a moment. That stylistic choice amplified the story in a way that made every interaction, every bit of dialogue and every sequence, more impactful. I would be stunned if this didn’t take home the Oscar for Best Cinematography.
Dennis Gassner is no stranger to production design but this wasn’t your typical movie set or location shoot. Sure, much of this was filmed in the English countryside but the set had to be linear and functional. There are basically no interiors so, you don’t really get to dwell in the immersive set decoration, by Lee Sandales, and the incredible costume design, by David Crossman and Jacqueline Durran, that populates the background of nearly every shot. The…let’s call it “finely-grained”…authenticity is excellent and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see all, or any, of their names among the list of Academy Award nominees.
Fourteen-time Oscar-nominee Thomas Newman’s original music is as big a part of this story as anything else. It’s not just underwriting the scenes, it’s integrated into the narrative thanks to the follow-cam style. Keep in mind, this was essentially two straight hours of music carrying the tension, the anticipation, and setting all the other emotional cues as well. As to be expected with a film of this epic nature, the sound design played an integral role and it was fantastic. Newman should be considered one of the frontrunners to take home the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Original Score. At the very least, the sound department should be looking at Oscar nods for Sound Editing and Mixing.
The scope, scale, and execution of this idea are so grand that the lead performances are almost pushed aside. For everything that went into the production, it would have sucked to see it all come apart due to some bad performances but thankfully Dean-Charles Chapman (Game of Thrones) and George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) were both outstanding. It was wise not to cast A-listers in these roles because that would strip away some of that very important authenticity. Not knowing these two very well allows the audience to just experience their journey as a whole rather than bringing any preconceived character traits in with them. These two young men worked really hard to make this feel as real as possible and it paid off. They were in pre-production with the rest of the crew from the very beginning and went through extensive rehearsals for months before principal photography began. As a result, their bond and familiarity with one another were readily apparent and they fed off one another in a way that played very naturally on screen. Awards season will probably come and go without these guys getting any recognition but they played an integral part in the success of this film.
The supporting cast boasts appearances from the likes of Kingsman cohorts Colin Firth and Mark Strong, along with Sherlock alums Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott. The totality of these roles amounted to little more than cameos but their presence helped elevate the caliber of the project. It would have been interesting to see the characters more fleshed out but the movie would have had to be something like 4-hours long.
This was a massively impressive experience on all levels. Once you see it and begin to piece together the Herculean effort required to integrate it all, the more astounding it becomes. It’s very different than all the other upper echelon films of 2019 but it’s unquestionably near the top. This could easily get a lot of the votes for Best Picture and Best Director based solely on the strength of the cinematic achievement…and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Don’t be surprised to see this factor in heavily at the Academy Awards. I can’t wait until January 10th when this movie goes into wide release and it’s available in formats like Dolby and IMAX.
Recommendation: If you like Sam Mendes’ work, you’ll probably enjoy this one a lot and fans of the war movie genre will see something they’ve never seen before. It’s still in limited release until January 10th, 2020 but it’s probably worth the wait for the extra formats anyway.