Movie review: "1917"

February 06, 2020

OF all the good films shown in Hollywood last year, our personal choice as best film is “Marriage Story” because it’s so relatable and both Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver are so splendid as the married couple who decided to part ways. But when it comes to film craft, the most beautifully put together movie of the year is “1917”, directed by Sam Mendes of “American Beauty” and the James Bond film, “Spectre”.

He dedicates it to his late grandfather, who told him stories about the First World War. The movie happens only in the course of a day and you cannot help but marvel at the stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins. The film’s conceit is that the whole thing is shot in one continuous unbroken long take (“tuhog” in local parlance) with the camera just following the lead characters all throughout. It maybe mainly just one long shot but never static or tedious as the camera dives and swoops and prances as it follows every action on screen.

The film happens on April 6, 1917. All the telephone lines in Northern France have been cut off and there is no other way of communication except for personal delivery of important messages. British infantryman Lance Corporal Blake (Dean Charles Chapman, King Tommen in “Game of Thrones”) is ordered by Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth) to select a companion for a dangerous suicide mission impossible that will require them to race against time.

He chooses his friend, Lance Corporal Schoman (George Mackay, who played Hamlet in “Ophelia”, the recent retelling of Shakespeare’s tale told from the point of view of Ophelia, as played by Daisy Ridley of “Star Wars”) and they are charged to personally deliver a very urgent letter to a general in a far flung division.

The message aims to warn their British comrades to stop their planned impending attack to German territory as they will just be walking into a trap. For sure, many lives will be lost if Blake and Schofield don’t succeed in delivering the letter that is a matter of life and death.

Blake is chosen because his older brother, Lt. Blake (Richard Madden of “Rocketman”) is a member of the 2nd Battalion at Croisilles Wood led by Gen. McKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch). Accomplishing their mission is certainly no picnic as they will have to cross the front enemy lines and go into German territory before they get to the French countryside. It’s certaily a no man’s land where they might not come out alive.

The camera then follows them walking through the very narrow trenches, going over very rough muddy terrain of nightmarish hell full of barbed wire and booby traps. The first half hour is expository, showing the ugliness of war with so many dead people and animals along the way.  There’s only one obvious cut when a character falls down the stairs, but otherwise, it never lets up. Mendes wants us to absorb all the horrors of it all.

Later on, we get the actual action you expect from a war movie, with aerial dogfights, gunfights and explosions on the land, deadly close encounters with the enemy, and the movie becomes very exhausting, even gut-wrenching to watch, you feel like you’ve taken a beating, but still, it is ultimately very satisfying to watch.

The unbroken single-take style of photographing the whole thing truly pulls the viewer into the action, depicting the gruesome aftermath and all the ugliness of trench warfare in Western Europe laid bare, with the decaying remains of men and animals now being fed on by vultures and mice.

After a while, you sort of become desensitized to the horror of it all and the only thing that becomes of supreme importance is to survive all the carnage, desperation and insanity around you.

The movie is well served by its relatively unknown two leads on whose shoulders a large part of the movie’s success rests. Their reactions and emotions are vital to everything that happens to the stimulus around them and you actually care for them even if they don’t really have any sympathetic back stories whatsoever. Everything is in their here and now. All the other actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Richard Madden, etc. actually play only extended cameo roles.

Technically, the film is a stunner. Aside from the compelling, visually striking cinematography that immerses us and engulfs us and that surely required a lot of detailed planning, meticulous rehearsals and precision in blocking, the musical score is also forceful and uniquely ominous. Even the period production design, specially of the trenches, is just awesome and makes you feel like you’re gazing into a special portal in time from 100 years ago.

In 1948, Alfred Hitcock became the first director to try shooting a movie on a single long take. There are other attempts, like Alejandro Innaritu’s Oscar-winning “Birdman” and our very own Cebuano filmmaker Remton Zasuola’s “Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria” that won the Urian best picture award.

But “1917” is for us the most effective in using this very fluid “you are actually there” technique that lends immediacy and thrill to all the risky, unromanticized things happening on screen. We’re sure they’ve used some seamless trick shots to sustain the illusion but no doubt it helped in achieving a sense of nervous tension that the usual styles of moviemaking with multiple cameras and shots will not accomplish.

Mendes does for WWI here what Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” did for Omaha Beach in WWII, using a dangerous mission to display the grim spectacle of the war ravaged surroundings along the way. Both films are truly an unforgettable cinematic experience that will withstand the test of time.