War films, as of late, have done very little for me. Blind patriotism simply rubs me the wrong way and I’m simply so distrusting of the government and authority that I always find myself having trouble connecting to what I’m seeing when I watch war films (ironically, the only short film I ever made as a teen was a film about the Vietnam war). Obviously, that isn’t always the case, especially when incredible filmmakers are tasked with providing the necessary craftsmanship that’s required to make a great war film. APOCALYPSE NOW obviously comes to mind. Even if Coppola really can’t make a good movie any longer, it would be silly to argue APOCALYPSE NOW isn’t a masterpiece. Even FULL METAL JACKET (which I like more than some of Kubrick’s “better” works), which is very flawed, handles some incredibly harrowing sequences with deftness (as is Kubrick).
As of late, though, war films just don’t seem to hit their mark at all. Though I love Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker most of the time, DUNKIRK really bored me. Perhaps it was because I had such high expectations or perhaps because I had a bout of low blood sugar as I caught a matinee on the opening weekend, but it didn’t do it for me. I didn’t hate AMERICAN SNIPER when it came out (I was 17 and had much worse opinions back then), any time I think about it now, it’s super gross how Islamophobic it is; it’s basically a MAGA propaganda film (such is Eastwood). I suppose I did like HACKSAW RIDGE a good amount, even if I abhor Mel Gibson, but for much of the decade, I’ve found any war film I’ve seen to be mostly tired and played out and filled with gross American extremism.
1917, however, is a masterpiece. If not for PARASITE (the third best film from this decade) and UNCUT GEMS, it would be the film of the year. I saw it three days before the decade ended. It was also my final theatrical experience of the decade. It was simply put… exhilarating.
Right upfront, I’m always leery of films that are pitched with a gimmick. When directors and actors go on press runs for their films months before they’re released to the public and they spend much of their time talking about an aspect of the film that makes their film “different” from other films, as opposed to talking about why their films feature strong characters and good storytelling, I get nervous. BOYHOOD (a movie made by a terrific director that is perfectly average, if not boring, save for a decent first act) is one that I think of immediately. As BOYHOOD was about to come out, all that anybody talked about was how it was filmed over 12 years… which is like, cool… if the movie is good. If it’s boring, why should I care how long it took to make? BIRDMAN, which I really like a lot and is a far better film than BOYHOOD (both considered two of the best films from 2014) also had a gimmick, but it actually serves to enhance the story, whereas BOYHOOD’s gimmick didn’t do much to make the movie better.
1917 is a film with a gimmick. In fact, it’s the same gimmick that BIRDMAN employs (the films also both happen to have a 119-minute runtime, which doesn’t matter at all, but a fact I find interesting): The film appears to be all shot in one take. The difference is that BIRDMAN is a movie following a cast of characters working on a Broadway show and 1917 features a story that follows two soldiers on their quest to deliver an important message to another base during World War I. I don’t want to diminish BIRDMAN and make it seem like it’s easy to film a movie about Broadway actors in one take (it’s not), but it is absolutely more challenging to film a war epic with choreographed explosions and violence in one take. And that’s what makes 1917 so special.
Sam Mendes, who is the director of my third favorite movie ever, AMERICAN BEAUTY (I know it’s aged super poorly, especially considering Kevin Sp*cey plays a pedophile in it, but I still love it), as well as the director of some incredible stage works, such as the 1994 CABARET, the 1995 COMPANY, the 2003 GYPSY, and most recently, THE FERRYMAN, created what will go down as (probably) the most monumental work of his career. Not only did he direct 1917, but he also was one of two writers (the other being Krysty Wilson-Cairns), and though dialogue was sparingly used, when it was, it was effective, especially in the first act of the film.
Roger Deakins, who has fourteen Best Cinematography Academy Award nominations and one win (in fifteen years when she has fourteen nominations and one win, we’ll look at Amy Adams the same way as Deakins. Both careers not being more honored with awards should be a crime.), provides the film with the best cinematography of his career (a career that features THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, FARGO, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, and BLADE RUNNER 2049). I will be floored if he doesn’t add another Oscar to his collection this February.
The cast is also exceptional, and if it wasn’t for them, the gimmick of the way the movie was shot wouldn’t matter one bit (see: BOYHOOD). George MacKay, who I could’ve sworn I had seen in some BLACK MIRROR episode (I hadn’t) leads the entire thing with a quiet vulnerability masked by a steadfastness that makes for a really compelling protagonist. He shares a good deal of his scenes with Dean-Charles Chapman, who has a charming sense of charisma and confidence that shines through whenever he speaks. The two make for a really excellent pair in all of their scenes and helped to create a really engaging first act.
Colin Firth has a minor role, but delivers exactly as we would expect him to. Mark Strong provides another sturdy performance. He’s never flashy or showy, but he always does his job and he always does it very well; this is no exception. Cumberbatch is stellar, as well. Perhaps my only gripe with the film (and it is minor) is that Cumberbatch’s celebrity, especially after joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe ALMOST makes him distracting in this movie. It’s not enough to be a real issue, and there is absolutely no problem with his acting (if an unknown actor did what he did in this movie, nobody would blink an eye or have any issue), but I definitely was thinking about how famous he was the first moment he appeared onscreen.
Perhaps the best supporting performance came from Richard Madden (the actor who played Robb Stark in GAME OF THRONES, who quietly had an incredible year, what with both 1917 and his supporting role in the very underrated ROCKETMAN from earlier in 2019). He probably isn’t onscreen for more than 90 seconds, but he’s also is the heart and soul of the entire film, and he delivers a really powerful and crushing performance in a really brief amount of time.
The second-best film of 2019, UNCUT GEMS (which I plan on going long on in the coming weeks), gave me more anxiety than perhaps any film I’d ever seen; I was stressed and unable to breathe for most of the viewing experience (in the best way possible). The final act of this film left me feeling the exact same way, except in 1917, the final act had me as stressed as I was thrilled. Unlike UNCUT GEMS, where I was mostly just stressed/terrified about how the film was going to conclude, 1917 had me leaning up in my chair, grinning and wholly aware that the film was careening towards an impeccable climax. There is a sequence in the final fifteen minutes of this movie (you’ll know exactly what sequence if you watch it) that was shot so perfectly that all I could do was sit back in my chair and beam about the fact that I was witnessing one of the most exciting sequences in any film ever. It was masterful.
1917 cost 90 million dollars to make. As of writing this, it’s grossed around two million dollars (having been released for a full week in limited spaces). It probably won’t reach the necessary numbers to recoup the cost of making it, which is frustrating, because whenever studios lose money, they rarely look to try again to take similar bold risks in the future. Audiences alone mostly dictate what gets made and put into theaters… There will always be another TERMINATOR as long as people continue to show up at the theaters and watch them, regardless of if they’re terrible or not.
Run to see 1917. Films like this are essential film experiences (especially in the theater) and they have to continue getting made. If people don’t see this, eventually, films like this won’t continue getting made. Films like 1917 have to continue getting made. They simply have to.