One of my favorite movies of the 2000s was 2008’s Tropic Thunder and specifically its satire of Hollywood and the modern movie industry; that movie touches on a lot of topics like Robert Downing Jr’s character literally becoming black so he can play the black character, but the one that always stuck out to me was the willingness of Hollywood to ‘glorify’ and ‘idolize’ selfless acts of valor and comradery in exploitative and absurd ways. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy those types of movies and a movie is never really meant to portray historical events “accurately”, because that is literally impossible, but most of that philosophy comes from a good place; if you can’t fully convey the hardships and literal hell the real people went through accurately enough (while not becoming a documentary), then at least you should focus on aspects you can deliver on like showcasing the courage of the brave people who sacrificed everything so they can defend their countries. What does this have to do with 1917 though? Well, this movie will definitely get a lot of praise for its technical achievements, its stellar directing, acting, impressive soundtrack, and unrivalled visual work to make its gimmick (presented as a continuous one shot) work, but alongside those achievements, 1917 manages to be a unique genre movie in a genre that has been around since the start of cinema and will continue to be around for a long time.
The technical achievements I’m referring to is not the “one-shot” aspect – in all honesty, you will be able to tell where most cuts happen – but the fact that long, uncut shots work so well; I urge you to go watch this movie and then look up how this movie was shot. Just the sheer amount of preparation and the unfathomable variables that each scene has that could go wrong or miscalculated is just mind-blowing; just considering that and the fact that there’s no shaky cam segments or that the transportation of the camera will switch methods numerous times during a single scene is just extraordinary. It will start with a two-man group holding the camera with handles, switch to a vehicle, then mounted on a crane, back to a human operator, all within the same scene; if you’re interested in that stuff, it’s really fascinating to look into.
What’s really impressive though is that this method did not limit the number of impressive visuals the crew could achieve; we’re talking about some of the most impressive set designs of the year, with some impeccable visuals by Deakins. This has to be my favorite work done by Deakins, surpassing even Skyfall and Blade Runner 2049, not just in awe-inspiring set pieces – like the night scene and the frontline dash – but also in relatively somber and quiet moments. Beyond that, the soundtrack is truly impressive in how sparingly, yet effectively, it is used and how much it does to elevate the drama and anxiousness the movie expertly creates.
I could go on for pages about all the creativity and ingenuity that it took to shoo this movie, but, as with all ambitious movies, only one thing matters: Did they make a good movie, or a good showcase of how to make a movie? 1917, by all accounts should not have worked as well as it does; story wise it’s the story of Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield treacherous journey through German lines to deliver a message that’s to stop an attack and save 1600 lives that include Blake’s older brother, while character wise, you don’t even learn anything “significant” about Blake and Schofield to get you emotionally attached to them, and action wise, there’s nothing really there to get your adrenaline pumping. But, the “gimmick” of 1917 works so well that it manages to create one of the most nerve-wrecking and poignant war movies of recent memory; every moment you spent with the characters – whether they are talking, arguing, walking, searching hostile land for dangers, or desperately trying to focus and fight for their lives and their cause – it adds this growing sense of unease and to your understanding of what these people went through in real life, but also what these characters have to go through in this mission. There’s not a single moment where characters feel safe; there’s always that feeling that, at any moment, a bullet will come screaming through the silence and end someone’s life.
Even beyond the excellent atmosphere created, the impressive visuals, and the amazing set-pieces that use the gimmick to scratch themselves in your memory, director and writer Sam Mendes alongside leading actors Dean-Charles Chapman and George Mackay are so brilliantly efficient with the dramatic and poignant moments that they elevate their relatively cliché moments to heights that make them feel fresh; the beats of the story are not novel, the way they are presented absolutely are though, and it makes them feel novel. This is a war movie about stopping a fight, about the hardships of war, the relations soldiers have with each other, going through impossible odds, where everything that can go wrong will go wrong, yet stopping only at death to succeed in your mission – all things we’ve seen before in other war movies – yet, they feel new here because of that uncut bond created with this gimmick; even that age-old cliché of someone having to tell bad news to someone else, is so heart-wrenching here because of you being with them through their entire journey.
Is 1917 faultless? No, it would have been so much more hard-hitting had it given more time to develop and endear its characters (in a more conventional sense at least), and although the soundtrack was used impressively and that’s why it is one of the highlights, I still think it was not used as much as it could have been without losing those moments of silence or its efficiency. However, every movie can become better if you nitpick and search for mistakes, but movies like 1917 that try something new in a genre that has been well-established and succeed to such an impressive degree, are a rare and welcomed occurrence. This is the type of movie that will make people interested in history, aware of it and its importance, it will entertain and provide something meaningful and worthwhile to every audience member, and it will inspire people to create, research, and learn about movies or history. It’s a movie that perfectly exemplifies the strengths of cinema, while teaching you something new; it’s a win-win for everyone.