On Sunday the Golden Globes established a clear frontrunner in the world of film for award season, but it wasn’t one many expected. While most of the field had been released in 2019, one film only released in eleven theaters this past Christmas to qualify for the awards is actually a 2020 movie in terms of wide release. That movie went on to win the night’s two biggest honors, Best Director and Best Motion Picture – Drama. The movie was “1917”, the first battlefield-based war film since “Saving Private Ryan” to earn a Best Picture Honor from the Globes. Taking place during World War I and inspired by director Sam Mendes’s grandfathers’ stories from the war, “1917” was finally made available to general audiences for this weekend and boy did it deliver. Yeah, I’m not even saving the lead for the actual review. This is an excellent movie and one completely deserving of the honors it was bestowed on Sunday…but what makes it so good? Well let’s dive into this cinematic work of art. This is my review of “1917”. ALSO, I will be touching on some finer details of how this movie was shot that may be considered spoiler territory, so I’ll put a soft SPOILER WARNING here. But I won’t be going into many hidden details of the plot.
Going into “1917” I didn’t have great expectations. The story intrigued me and not too many movies make the war to end all wars their central focus nowadays. As the trailers present the film focuses on a pair of soldiers played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman who embark on a mission in 1917 during World War I to warn a neighboring unit that their planned assault is leading them into a trap with the added weight that one of the soldier’s brother is set to be in the battle. This sets the stage for what has to be one of the most pulse pounding war films I’ve seen in a very long time. What makes “1917” so special is that it’s not filmed in pieces or with an abundance of cuts. The twist of this movie is that it’s all built to look like one continuous take. While eagle eyed viewers will no doubt pick out the spots where Mendes and crew were able to hide the shot transitions like I did, only once in this film is there an obvious true cut and it happens right at the middle point of the movie’s two-hour run time to signify the passage of day to night. Otherwise “1917” is brilliantly edited to put your right into the story and action and gives you a sense that there is a ticking clock for the stakes at hand. Every second of the movie you feel the same rush of anxiety as the two main characters basically putting you right into the life of World War I soldiers working on a clock. It all adds up to a fast paced, layered and incredibly engaging experience that had me hooked right from the start and never let me go. I lost count of the mouth agape and silently mouthing “wow” moments I had during this film.
There’s so much to enjoy and appreciate about this movie beyond just the editing, which for the record never feels like a gimmick as it blends into the film rather than throwing in our face how cool it is. Anyways, outside of Mendes’ incredible editing and stylistic choice for the film the set pieces, atmosphere, dialogue and energy are all highlights of a truly incredible cinematic experience. There was so much thought and careful planning put into this film to make it feel authentic and immersive. The trenches, for example, were planned out ahead of time in rehearsal to allow for the one-shot approach. The brutal details of trench warfare life and the infamous “no man’s land” incorporated into the movie provide an unforgiving look at the forgotten horror of one of the deadliest wars the world has ever seen. I mean not since “Saving Private Ryan”, a movie many have begun comparing this movie to positively, have the realities of war been so perfectly replicated in not just the characters but the tone, production and visuals. It’s traumatizing, it’s disturbing, it’s heart racing, it’s uncompromising…it’s simply an excellent war movie.
I think one of the coolest things about this movie is how it uses its bigger names. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman have been in the business for some time, but compared to other performers like Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch they’re pretty much unknowns meaning that the two soldiers we follow for the movie are not the biggest names attached to the project. Rather the big names all get mere minutes of screen time. This brilliant use of casting shines light on how insignificant these two soldiers on a very important mission turn out to be in the grand scheme of things. Neither are high ranking officials of the war and neither are household names…they’re just people and yet we come to connect and relate to them very quickly. We want them to succeed and we’re on edge with every roadblock they face. But their story is a small act mixed into a larger conflict led by men of greater authority and power and the film never forgets that which makes these two soldiers’ dedication to their mission feel all the more real…this is their one way of trying to make a difference in the war serving both their country and their personal interests knowing that whether or not they die they will likely be forgotten in history but still they proceed against the odds. It’s pretty inspiring but also tragic at the same time.
I’ve seen a lot of movies in three years of this blog. Over a hundred each year in fact. But in only its second weekend 2020 has provided me with what I can safely say was one of my absolute favorite viewing experiences in all that time. There’s a good reason “1917” won at the Globes. This isn’t just some movie that earned votes from heavy lobbying, it is a truly deserving film. If I were able to see this movie in 2019 it may have even become my favorite film of the year. It’s an astounding cinematic achievement that finds Mendes in complete control of his craft from every angle (he even wrote this film for the first time in his career). It’s unrelenting in almost every detail of war and the drama of the story that it tries to portray. It’s an affecting movie, one that is unafraid to show us the harsh realities of a brutal conflict while somehow keeping the focus on a small scale narrative in such a large war. When you think of how many men lost their lives in those years and to think small events like this littered the war, it’s an astounding revelation captured in what is from my perspective a virtually perfect film. “1917” is not just a movie, it’s a cinematic painting meticulously crafted and inspired. This is the true best film of 2019 and undoubtedly destined to be one of the greatest movies of 2020.