1917 won the Golden Globe for movie drama. When you see it, you understand why. It is not your average war movie. Some could argue it’s not a war movie at all (I wouldn’t go that far, but I can see the point). World War I was a long, vast, not-very-imaginatively fought war:
-Send men over trench
-Collect dead and wounded
-Repeat as often as possible
While 1917 touches on and reflects these realities, it doesn’t grapple with the war itself, or even the year of 1917. While the war was very consequential (we still feel the effects of it today more than a century later), it was filled with inconsequential moments. Moments that were important in, well, the moment. But overall the war went on regardless of their outcome. 1917 tackles one of those moments.
It is the story of Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay). They are napping in a field between battles, when Blake is told to pick a man and report to his commanding officer. He rousts Schofield and off they go. They are told to go behind enemy lines and get a message to a Colonel that his men are being lured into a trap and massacre.
As extra incentive, Blake’s brother serves there and will surely die, along with 1600 others, if the message doesn’t get there by dawn.
The movie takes place over the next 16 hours or so, mostly with these two men looking not only to survive but to save others. We never learn much about Blake and Schofield. In the moments when they’re not solely focused on surviving whatever is around the next corner, they try to lighten the mood. There is no deep moment of reflection or revelation. I like this. The fact that we never know much about their pasts or hopes for the future keeps the audience, like them, solely focused on the moment.
We know what we need to know about them. They are young. And hopeful. And cynical. They are raw but seasoned. April of 1917 means they were about three years into the war, but with 18 months left there was no end in sight. And end of their youth. A loss of hope. A cynicism set in stone.
We don’t need contrived emotional dialogue or tinted flashbacks to get us in their frame of mind. Discussions about the size of rats, comments about lack of rations, and the fate of Schofield’s medal tell us what we need.
Side Note: These are some of the same reasons I loved A Quiet Place. It didn't spend
a lot ofany time explaining where the threat came from, it just let us join the crisis in progress and bond with the characters' survival.
Humanity In A Sea of Inhumanity
Just because we don’t know a lot about Schofield and Blake doesn’t mean we don’t connect with their humanity. Twice they try to treat the enemy with basic human kindness. Twice they are betrayed.
Rural France is a wasteland, devoid of civilization or civilized refugees. But when one of them crosses paths with a refugee and an infant, his natural instinct to help them at a personal cost kicks in.
It’s these moments that are telling and give us a glimpse into their souls. It’s just enough. Anymore would be pandering and bordering on tedious.
What makes this movie standout is a semi-unique form of storytelling. Director Sam Mendes tries to tell this story as one long continuous shot. And he does a great job. I’ve only seen this once, so I don’t have a clock on the shots, but some go on for minutes at a time. Excellent editing eases the transitions, and a couple of incidents making our hero unconscious help bridge time and editing challenges.
I like semi-seamless storytelling. So often a shot change takes the audience out of an intense moment, and acts as an emergency exit from a scene that may be too emotionally challenging for the audience or the character. This movie is intensified by the long shots. The journey is fraught with danger, and like the Blake and Schofield, we aren’t able to escape.
I love this movie, but it’s not my favorite movie of the year, and I’m not sure it’s the best movie of the year. But it’s up there.
As we move into the heart of awards season, it could suffer from lack of marquee star power. Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch bookend the movie, but in between it’s Chapman and MacKay’s film to carry. They do a superb job, but I don’t see acting nominations in their near futures. And fair or not, big names help movies snowball into awards behemoths.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
It’s set in France, so wine seems an obvious choice. But, in a truck, Schofield takes a swig of some brown liquor.
So I’m going with 1000 Stories Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel. Blake and Schofield’s story is one 1000 similar stories from the war. And I’m pouring Schofield a double. He’s earned it.