Technically, 1917 released late last year. It only saw a limited release in a few dozen theaters, before expanding to…a few hundred. Finally, it’s seen a wide release and finally, I’ve had a chance to see it. As far as I’m concerned this is a 2020 film, and so far, it’s my favorite of the year.
Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead
Stunning is the first word that comes to mind.
There wasn’t a single thing I didn’t love about it. In no particular order:
- I loved every casting choice.
- I loved the switcharoo of main-characters after act one
- I loved the cinematography
- I loved the three big “wow” scenes (the tripwire, the plane crash, and the run across the battlefield)
- I loved the editing*
- I loved the steady, rhythmic bass that kept the tension going during the scenes where nothing happens but character(s) walking.
*So, let’s talk about the gimmick of the movie being a “one-take” film.
First off, it’s a gimmick that can easily be done very badly, and when done badly it gives the idea a bad name. Much as I love Hitchcock, I thought Rope was a perfect example of the technique done wrong. Rope makes it too obvious, too showy, which is weird because so much of Rope is static. The movie is simultaneously boring in the way it’s shot, and frustrating in how “look at me” it is. I admire the rudimentary techniques used to bring it to life but the end result is more “experiment” than “movie.”
1917 modernizes the technique perfectly.
I don’t know for sure how they did it, but I imagine digital editing was used to blend the cuts together. Back in the day, you had to hide cuts with something moving in front of the camera (like a person walking) or with a quick camera whip (hiding the cut in the blur).
1917 had a lot of little moments where things moved in the frame in such a way that I thought “I wonder if that’s where they cut” but it happens so often, I knew in the back of my mind they weren’t ALL the times the cuts happened. Once I realized it wasn’t worth playing “spot the edit” I was able to sit back and enjoy the movie. It stopped being a “look at me” thing within the first fifteen minutes and by the end, I totally forgot it was a “one-shot” thing at all.
I also loved how the tension went from “high” to “you might need to chew an aspirin” once the duo mission became a solo mission. There were moments where it seemed liked Schofield was one man vs an entire army. Even in those few moments where I was supposed to be able to exhale, like when he takes shelter with the French woman and baby, I still couldn’t relax because I knew at any minute the guns would start going off again.
To that note, I’m again amazed that the movie managed to balance story, set pieces, and quiet moments in its one-shot style without either becoming tedious on the one end or too busy on the other.
This movie deserves so many awards.
Obviously Sam Mendes for directing, as recognition for conceptualizing and executing his vision for this movie in such a brilliant way. There are so many ways this could have been a fiasco or a major letdown. Instead, it not only rose to the occasion but it beat my every expectation. That’s on Sam for pulling it off.
Roger Deakins for cinematography should be a no-brainer. This movie’s script was, by design, slight. It was merely serviceable, there to do what it needed to keep the film moving; the real heart of the picture was Deakins photography, especially at night, when the film was at its most unrelenting and tension-packed, and the visuals were almost two-tone (black and fire-orange).
And, unconventional as it is, Lee Smith deserves something for the work he did editing the picture. I imagine that sounds like a joke to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, but when you consider the craft that had to be done to make this film—which featured many cuts—look like it had none, a special bit of recognition is deserved, I think. He wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, though, which is sad.
Finally, Thomas Newman’s score was incredible. I wonder what the movie would have been like with a less bombastic accompaniment. I have a hunch it wouldn’t have landed with the same impact. It needed that big orchestra seemingly driving the action as Schofield ran across the battlefield in the climax, or as he trudged zombie-like through the burning town, or struggled against the rapids of the river. As I said, the story itself is slight; the score elevates it.
I really hope this movie gets recognized by the Academy for the achievement that it was. As I said at the top, I know 1917 was technically released in 2019, but it didn’t get a wide release until 2020. So far, it’s my favorite film of the year and whatever comes along will have to be pretty incredible to top it.
10/10 – 1917 is one of the finest war films ever made, one of the most tension-packed films ever made, and one of the best-“realized” movies ever conceived.
A true triumph.