The horror of war has been vividly displayed on screen in many ways in the past. In fact, it almost feels like every great filmmaker has to have their crack at it before their career is done. Christopher Nolan and Mel Gibson being the most recent to illuminate our view of this time honored history of true horror. Yet, not since Steven Spielberg harrowingly took us to the beaches of D-Day in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ has a war story felt like so much of a gut check. We all may know that war is hell, but director Sam Mendes wants you to feel it. He wants you to have just a taste of the pain, suffering, and bittersweet triumph that being a soldier really is.
Mendes has revealed that he picked the First World War because of his connection to his grandfathers stories, and while the horror of war translates to any period, this story is unique to its time. This is because World War I was a war that was won an inch at a time. It was fought between bunkers and areas that no man could cross. Which is part of what makes the tale being told in ‘1917’ so eye opening. In this true story, in order to save 1,600 men, two young soldiers have to make an arduous trek through the aftermath of no man’s land and stop a doomed attack from ever happening. The result is unforgettable.
This unforgettable experience is made a reality by the perfect combination of a series of rather difficult elements. One, the movie meticulously recreates the battlefields of 1917. Quite literally illuminating even the most infinitesimal detail. Something that would not be necessary in other films, but is so paramount in this one because of the way it is shot. The second, is the casting of just about every great English actor Sam Mendes could get his hands on. Most notably, a star turning performance by the young George McKay (who should be in Oscar contention).
Third, the use of sound and music create a perfect marriage of triumph and intensity. The film knows exactly when to keep silent and when to let the great Thomas Newman deliver some of the most triumphant orchestral moments of 2019. And lastly, Mendes choreographs almost every single moment of the film and allows the great Roger Deakins to deliver one of the greatest achievements in cinematic history. A number of films have attempted to shoot much or all of their running times in one long shot, but to do it in a war movie of this scale is unheard of.
Many may dismiss the film as a gimmick, but audiences will disagree. The horrific opening of ‘The Revenant’ and the harrowing ending of ‘Children of Men’ proved that the long shot can be used to such intense effect. Yet, by stretching it the length of the feature, the filmmakers trap you in real time and give you an almost unbearable sense of build up. It makes the entire ticking clock scenario ever more palpable to the audience and makes the loss of life feel even more visceral.
The same can be said for the small moments. By allowing the intensity to build over time, the small moments feel all the more important. When combined with all the other expertly crafted tools of the trade, this film delivers a series of moments that dig deep into the human consciousness. I saw this film over a month ago, and I remember certain sequences vividly. Even moments where the characters are walking slowly through no man’s land have impact. And while the story of two soldiers trying to save a battalion might be simple, it also conveys the essence of being a soldier more than any convoluted plot could ever do. War is hell, and soldiers fight it for their battle buddy. For this, and everything ‘1917’ does with perfection, it is the best war film of the 21st century.
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