The most urgent film of 2019 is the one named after a year: 1917. Sam Mendes has reemerged as a director of great technical prowess and control. He has crafted a brave and gorgeous one-take film that recounts a single mission in The Great War, adapted from the memories passed down by his grandfather. It feels intended, as though he’s always had the mind to make this movie, that this just so naturally must follow the director’s very good work on Jarhead (2005). But now he has made the pinnacle of a modern war movie, one to sit proudly next to The Hurt Locker (2008) or Dunkirk (2017).
About the one-take: it’s beautifully well-realized. It functions as a perfect narrative driver, keeping the clock running against our youthful protagonists – the sensational George MacKay as Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman as Blake. Their mission is sufficiently simple: they must alert a British battalion that the Germans have laid a trap. Blake’s brother is on the advancing British squad. They hope to save many lives in a potentially doomed conflict. So, the camera stays with them all the time. It is truly a race against the clock, and we get to see all of the movement toward the objective here.
Functionally, cuts are needed to make a good and long film. Like Hitchcock’s superb one-take Rope (1948), 1917 buries the cuts. Characters will pass through walls and buildings, and the camera will imply a continuous sweep. There is only one moment at the halfway point where it cuts as an abrupt stop: to signify a new time of day, a forced concession to its form. Everything feels seamless, although the challenge for the viewer here is always to wonder: where is every cut, and are we not spending time thinking about them, and not their invisibility — and they are as invisible as, say, Birdman’s (2014).
What it does, in effect, is not reduce the war, but enlarges a microscopic cog in the machine. 1917 is breathless until it is not. It slows down only a few times, to grant characterization, to allow moments of sentiment and feeling, and most gracefully, to join a troop listening tranquilly in the forest as one member sings a lovely song from home.
Mendes has crafted a technical feat of a film. It’s constantly impressive. Its greatest function is to bring awareness to further technical merits. The excellent production design presents a playground for the film: weaving trenches, underground bunkers, fields of flowers, abandoned buildings, ponds filled with death, the environments are everything in 1917. They are the functional battleground. It’s all supremely impressive: seeing the two young men careen carefully through the hellscapes of World War I painted in vivid cinematic language.
Roger Deakins photography finds an ideal balance in all things. His shots remain focused and in-the-trenches, always finding the right perspective, the best image. The whole thing looks downright gorgeous. The cinematography itself carries the same momentum: it is informed by an urgency in the image, it funnels the action toward the goal.
Composer Thomas Newman is likely to receive his fourth academy nomination for his work with Sam Mendes: and this time he feels like a front-runner. The music of 1917, like Dunkirk before it, motivates the action. It sets a tone that leads the visuals every step of the way. The soundscape here is a richly detailed one, tonally unique in the war film canon, lifting from hopefulness to despair with empathetic and new sounds. The score is good enough to watch the movie for and good enough to listen to on its own, boldly entrenching itself as the sound of trench warfare.
1917 is a work of technical mastery. That it all comes together at all is a great credit to talented folks behind the camera. Sam Mendes has made his best film. It feels expertly paced, there are not any wasted minutes that do not move the action forward. And yet, it avoids the pitfalls of the usual war film. It does not engage politically, beyond showing the truth of the hell of its characters. Where Mendes’ Jarhead is a waiting game in wartime, 1917 takes the opposite tact: this is a full-barreled charge into action, a movie about stopping the conflict, that rarely engages in the war itself. With this unique position, it becomes an insistent and necessary modern war film.