1917 (2019, Sam Mendes)
I’m as surprised as you are! This thing has so much stacked against it, both fairly and unfairly. It’s unabashed Oscar bait with can’t-miss subject matter (the unsung heroes of WWI); a show-offy gimmick of basically being a oner a-la the mostly reviled BIRDMAN (it’s actually a “two-er,” since midway through it cuts to black and opens back up hours later); and directed by Sam Mendes, who’s never made a great film, and whose last effort, SPECTRE, was, if not the worst Bond movie ever, a numbing and dour slog through obligatory IP so bereft of creativity you’d think it was directed by Shawn Mendes.
And yet! Remember that scene in OLD SCHOOL when Will Ferrell’s lifetime-moron Frank seemingly gets possessed exorcist-style and defeats James Carville in a debate? I think that’s what happened to Mendes. Something entered his body and orchestrated this titanic ode to the human condition, a philosophical treatise on the relationship of cinema to the battlefield, and a visceral experience so vigorously lachrymose it forced me to pull over to the side of the road while driving home from the movie theater, sobbing violently in my car like Tom Hanks at the end of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS.
So let me start with a potential common complaint against this: i.e. the oner disease. Some critics so proud of their own ability to sniff out directorial arrogance have decided to categorically dismiss oner movies as showy and pointlessly distracting — and they’ll go into 1917 already hating it by design. But showy, by itself, isn’t necessarily bad. VERTIGO is showy, too. So what? If you’ve got it, flaunt it. And what Deakins is doing here is the opposite of distracting; he puts the camera in impressively head-scratching places in order to give you the sense of time uninterrupted (making the mid-film break and time jump all the more jarring) — an amount of time integral to the hero’s journey and a key ingredient of the suspenseful, harrowing odyssey Schofield and Blake embark upon.
In film language, if edit points are periods, then a oner can be a run-on sentence, but Mendes and Deakins find a poetry in the lack of periods, one that eluded BIRDMAN and VICTORIA (and maybe even RUSSIAN ARK?) — such as images that combine wide compositions, silhouettes, close-ups, two-shots, and inserts, all in one fluid three-second move. Deakins also wisely shies away from conventionally beautiful exterior lighting — these aren’t sun-dappled fields and lush forests: they’re gloomy, cloudy skies overseeing white-washed trenches of dead bodies; foggy, flame-scorched woods, evidence of the ghosts of battles left behind — much like the name “Karla” scrawled on a bunker wall in chalk with a heart on it, a masterfully subtle touch of production design to remind us of the shared humanity of our enemies.
And yet even within this carefully ugly visual palette, Deakins will follow up a vision of despair with a painterly composition two seconds later, simply by tilting up his camera to frame a weeping soldier in front of a floral tree and babbling creek. As Malick did with THE THIN RED LINE, Mendes juxtaposes the indifferent, awesome beauty of nature with the terror of war, placing our species’ innately entropic tendency towards violence in an environment of harmony and quiet peace. The sense of loss is palpable both in Schofield’s individual experience and in the grander portrait of an epoch of human history where inconceivable displays of savagery exist alongside displays of distinctly unique courage.
Like classic Greek theater, this movie takes place within 24 hours, but encompasses life born, lived, examined, and extinguished — our heroes awaken in a calm field to march unknowingly to their perilous orders; Schofield himself drinks milk in the adolescence of his journey, then later, in his hardened future, passes it along to an infant in a delicate display of fatherhood (and glimpse of familial life he’s avoided and may never achieve). He learns of mercy and of randomness, of loss and regret, of triumph and of absurdity, and of the capacity of humans at their lowest to bond in art, community, and performance. A bloodied hand is thrust into the cavity of a bloodier wound; an airplane crashes through a two-dimensional painting of a house once occupied; a scavenging rat can be responsible for tripping a wire that buries men alive; an encroaching figure can be friend or enemy, and only darkness can mask his identity… these are the pieces of a tapestry that evokes no less than the continued struggle we endure in order to find meaning in a meaningless world: a godless universe that heaps untold amounts of tragedy on the unsuspecting and the undeserving, and asks us to continue rolling the boulder up the hill. If we save lives, are we delaying the inevitable or rescuing generations? The answer will evade us eternally, and we can only rest periodically, putting our head against a tree, and close our eyes to dream of what could have been.