Two years ago, Christopher Nolan’s, Dunkirk, was released to much anticipation, and even earned itself an Academy Award nomination for best picture. Nolan, unfortunately, has always had some issues with characters and dialogue. Both of which can frequently come up short, and end up feeling clunky which undermines his frequently lofty ambition, as well as his knack for handling the camera as well as the shots and sequences that ability produces.
Sam Mendes has no such issue.
1917 is easily one of the best films of the year, and is a very strong contender for one of the best war films of the decade- and might be the best one since Hurt Locker. This film is also about a rescue mission of sorts, as if follows two characters who are tasked with trekking past the previously occupied German front lines and into the French countryside in order to prevent an assault into a trap which will see the lives of 1600 men being lost. The very first thing which becomes apparent in this film is its cinematography: it is the keystone of the entire film, holding up and allowing every other aspect to succeed.
This is another film which is done in a “oner” style, meaning that it is meant to look as though the entire film has been made in one shot. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman and The Revenant are two recent examples which make use of this structure. There is one clear cut within the film where our protagonists lose consciousness, allowing for a time skip, but other than that one break, there are no other obvious cuts in the film, and the ones that are sure to be there are damn tough find. For nearly the entire runtime of the film, the camera is seemingly within arms distance of our protagonists, as they navigate tunnels, barbed wire, enemy fire and all other manor of obstacles. In order for this to work, there has to be some mixture of handheld and crane/machine operated shots, but the seams tying those shots together are practically invisible.
This serves as both the film’s most interesting hook, and its one real downside. Presenting the film as one (ok, two) continuous shot eliminates one of the key tools and pillars of filmmaking: editing. Sure, 1917 has a credited editor, who no doubt had a crucial role, but the edit itself does not. The edit is one of the most effective tools for deciding pace that exists in filmmaking. The pace can then go on to have a hand in deciding the tone, which in turn has a massive impact on the overall impact of the film. The aforementioned camera work is used as a sort of surrogate for more traditional cuts and edits. The camera fluidly dances around the actors, and uses this movement to change up the framing, staging and blocking of the scene to make even a shot in the most desolate of locations appear lively and kinetic. However, while the tone and pacing definitely shift and change throughout the film, the physical limitations set about by an extended single shot does mean that the film risks homogenization of the various scenes. This is especially true when trying to recall the film, as the moments tend to spill into one another as there is no natural break for the scenes.
Reducing the impact of this homogenization is Mendes’ tremendous use of color and setting to essentially create chapters for the film. Each time the film moves on from one scene or sequence to the next, a hard cut or edit is replaced by a transition of environments and, most critically, of color. The initial push to the German front lines are defined by earthy browns and grays punctuated by a dark and murky sky. This transitions to a setting of blacks and yellows as the duo march through a tunnel before emerging into a quarry of almost pure white. Green fields give way to bombed out cities suffocated by darkness which in turn shifts to the eerie blue which precedes the sun rise. Mendes’ use of color is one of this most underappreciated abilities as a director, and that skill is on full display in 1917.
Another impact of this oner style is that the audience is poised as a sort of third protagonist closely following in the footsteps of the other two soldiers on the screen. We experience every struggle, every challenge, and every loss they suffer through nearly first hand as a third protagonist- yet another young face confronting these horrors, and it invites us to experience the visions of war as Mendes wants. At a certain point in the film it becomes abundantly clear what Mendes wants us to see: the almost farcical aspects of war, the near-limitless aura of death which haunts any battlefield like an impermeable miasma, and the faces of all those who are marched into that poison.
Moments such as this one hammer home the point that while it may be the older citizens who plan out and decide the wars, it is the young who die in them.
1917 emphasizes that one of the very first casualties in war is youth. When a war breaks out, especially at this point in time, it is the young who are recruited, taken from home, and sent out to die for their country before even having the chance to experience any of it beyond their home towns. Of the many faces that we encounter as we travel with our pair of soldiers, the vast majority of them are young- too young to even qualify as men. These are boys that were being sent across the sea to fight over patches of land that they didn’t even see the value in, prompting one to even suggest letting the Germans keep it, as all that territory they had spent months fighting over amounted to nothing more than a few acres of farm land.
These boys are also sent into a factory whose only product is death, which is omnipresent within the film. Corpses scatter their path like breadcrumbs left by a beast with an insatiable appetite. Destroyed cities and homesteads are the only remnants of civilization within the film, and the only occupants are other youths who are from a different county and speak a different language, thus they are the enemy. The only civilians in the film are also youth being battered and weathered by war. A young French woman and an infant that does she doesn’t even know the name of are the only non-soldiers found within the film, and they are left hiding in a destroyed city with nowhere to go and no means of escape, again, from those who happen to be born in a different place. If the audience is the third companion to the two soldiers on their journey, then death is the fourth, as it follows them at every turn, and even lends aid in the form of handing them bodies to climb and crawl over to get past other obstacles.
1917 is a technical achievement complete with compelling characters and a tight narrative all of which build one of the most compelling films of the year, and a find sendoff to 2019. It is a film that reaches excellence in many ways, and though it lacks that little extra push needed to become an instant classic and surefire great of the decade, it is still a very visceral and satisfying experience, and should go down as one of the finer war films to come out in recent years.