"1917" RANKS WITH THE GREATEST OF WAR MOVIES
* * * * (out of four)
In making “1917,” Sam Mendes deprived himself of a tool relied on by virtually every director in history: editing.
And yet his film is all the better for it.
You see, Mendes’ World War I masterpiece essentially runs its entire two hours without a single cut.
Now I should point out that it does have an editor -- the accomplished Lee Smith, who inexplicably didn’t even rate an Oscar nomination for his brilliant work on “Inception.” So of course “1917” isn’t really one continuous shot, but rather a series of lengthy takes all seamlessly linked by several carefully concealed cuts.
Nonetheless, it’s a dazzling cinematic achievement -- and what’s particularly impressive is that it doesn’t call a lot of attention to itself; nor does the device distract us from this fiercely suspenseful narrative of two young soldiers sent across no-man’s-land to call off an attack which, it turns out, was deliberately invited by the Germans as an ambush.
If the men don’t get their message through, 1600 soldiers will die.
This spellbinding tale was nominated for 10 Oscars, and it deserves every one of those nods.
Not only do we have Mendes’ herculean directing feat, which must have required days and weeks of strategizing for the extended takes; but also, there’s amazing cinematography by the veteran Roger Deakins, who after decades of excellent work finally received an Academy Award in 2017 (for “Blade Runner 2049”).
Add yet another thoughtful, complex, evocative score from the masterful Thomas Newman, who remains winless after 15 noms for such films as “Saving Mr. Banks,” “Road to Perdition,” “American Beauty,” “Skyfall,” “Finding Nemo,” “Wall-E” and “The Shawshank Redemption.”
I was also glad to see an Oscar nod to the jaw-dropping production design; “1917’s” muddy, corpse-strewn, crater-pocked, pond-filled, bombed-out landscape is incredibly detailed and realistic; it also includes a full mile of actual trenches dug and built specifically for the film.
Mendes’ moving camera covers all that and more; yet it never feels gimmicky or self-conscious. In part this is achieved by constantly changing the angle on the men as we see them from behind, the side, in front, overhead -- and occasionally we get their own point of view.
More than anything else, though, the camerawork does not call undue attention to itself simply because the film is enthralling from start to finish. Despite some moments of peace and beauty, the two soldiers’ odyssey just keeps getting more and more desperate as it heads toward a heart-stopping climax. And undergirding it all are top-notch performances in every role -- not only George McKay and Dean-Charles Chapman as the leads, but also, in smaller parts, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth.
As the two men’s day-long trek covers a broad swath of human experience -- while the film itself marshals all the elements of good cinema (yes, even editing) -- “1917” emerges as one of the finest war movies ever made.
See it in the theater if you can.
directed by Sam Mendes
Run time: 119 min.
Rated R for violence and language