It’s rare but not unheard of for a director to win the Best Picture Oscar with their first movie. The last time it happened was in 1999 when Sam Mendes won Best Director for his first feature film American Beauty. This had happened five times before but the previous directors who won on their first time all got to where they were in idiosyncratic ways whether they were actors turned directors like Robert Redford and Kevin Costner, or choreographers who managed to get co-director credit like Jerome Robbins, or people with long television careers like James L. Brooks or Delbert Mann. But Sam Mendes really did seem like an overnight success story. Of course he wasn’t, he had actually had a decade of stage direction experience under his belt before that movie came along but in many ways that only complicates the narrative. A stage background would seem to suggest a career of making talky actor-driven cinema but his movies are usually at their best when they seem like visual extravaganzas, if there’s any common linkage in his career it’s the presence of major cinematographers like Conrad Hall and Roger Deakins. This perhaps culminated in his work on the James Bond film Skyfall and it would seem that he’s going to be something of an action movie director going forward and now he’s put that to the test with the highly visual World War I film 1917.
As the title would imply this movie is set in 1917 and during the height of the First World War. It starts with a pair of common soldiers named Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) resting by a tree when they’re unexpectedly called to a meeting with General Erinmore (Colin Firth) who gives them an urgent mission. Erinmore tells them that the Germans have recently made a tactical retreat that the a colonel has misinterpreted as a regular retreat and is planning an all-out attack. Erinmore knows this is a trap because he has access to some aerial reconnaissance but the Germans have cut phone lines and he has no way of communicating this. As such they’re tasking Blake and Schofield to run across No Man’s Land and through a few towns to reach the area this is happening and deliver a letter calling off the offensive, if they fail the whole division of 1600 men could be lost, including Blake’s older brother, who is a lieutenant in that division.
In the last couple of months the film world has been mired in debate over what seemed to me to be a fairly innocuous thing that Martin Scorsese said in an interview about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m mostly on Scorsese’s side in this but one thing about his statement that does stand out to me as a little odd comes when he compares them to “theme parks” rather than cinema. I sort of get what he’s trying to say there, but when you look at those MCU films are much more traditional in their construction than that suggests. In-between the CGI filled action scenes they have plenty of traditional exposition and draw some pretty tried and true filmmaking techniques. A movie that might arguably be closer to a rollercoaster from this decade might be George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. That was a movie where the characters are basically going from point A to point B, and then back to point A, while encountering all sorts of strange sights and taking part in all sorts of action sequences along the way. But a movie that takes that “film as roller-coaster” dynamic to even more of an extreme might be Alfonso Cuarón Gravity, which kept character interaction to a minimum and almost took place in real-time as it followed Sandra Bullock as she bounced around space and experienced all sorts of exciting adventures in her quest for survival.
I don’t make these comparisons to be insulting, those two movies are pretty great, and their rollercoaster-like formats mostly just make them feel like something bigger and more experimental than most action movies. Of course I bring this up because I think 1917 would be another film that fits in with this format and in some ways it takes it to the next level by being filmed in a way that gives the illusion that the film consists entirely of a single elongated shot in the mold of other “single-shot” films like Victoria or Russian Ark. Obviously this was accomplished with special effects and invisible cuts like Birdman was, especially given that it isn’t in real time and given the sheer volume of wild things that happen over the course of this “shot,” but that doesn’t diminish the vision per se. Once you know about that technique, know the premise, and understand that this is meant to be an “experience” as much as a film you probably have a pretty good idea how the film plays out. You don’t really know much about these guys outside of their general personalities and levels of determination, by and large the movie is about what they do rather than who they are and over the course of their travel they experience all sorts of WWI dangers. That said the film isn’t all action and the movie does take its foot off the accelerator a few more times than I expected it to, maybe too many times. Some moments that are meant to feel like oases of tranquility in the midst of all the action end up feeling less like escapes simply because of how many of them there are.
The real question is whether turning World War I into an “experience” was an idea that was in good taste to begin with. The experience being depicted here is not very representative of most soldiers’ experience during that war, which is a conflict that generally precluded acts of individual daring. For most soldiers that war was entirely about being stuck in awful muddy trenches as artillery exploded around them at all hours before they choked to death on mustard gas or got picked off from dozens of yards away by unseen enemies, that is if they didn’t get stricken with dysentery or trench-foot first and most fiction about the war has generally reflected this, it’s probably the least glamorized war ever fought. I wouldn’t say that 1917 glamorizes the war, it certainly has its fair share of nasty imagery to make it clear that war is supposed to be hell, but there is a focus on individual heroism here that kind of clashes with the usual narrative in a way that leaves me a little wary. Then again, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that setting a semi-adventure movie in the midst of one of the “good” wars like World War 2 is every bit as questionable and I don’t bat an eye at those, but there was something to said for leaving “the great war” as a symbol for human folly and waste rather than bravery. But it you look past that this is most definitely a cinematic accomplishment even if the film is a bit hollow beneath the surface. It’s a movie that is exactly what it is, and if you get on board with that it’s a pretty thrilling experience that shouldn’t be missed.
**** out of Five