At the end of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, the characters lament that their world-saving victory will be unknown by the masses. Ben Stiller replies in a close-up, “we’ll know.” Something about that moment always stayed with me, and I still think about it ten years later (no, my ‘best of 2009’ entry will not be about Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian) – this idea that saving the world is still valid even if nobody knows that the world was even in danger in the first place. I’m aware other movies had the same theme earlier and better, but my touchstone for it is a Ben Stiller comedy, so I’m using it.
That same philosophy runs through 1917, Sam Mendes’ WWI thriller that follows two British soldiers, Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), who are tasked with delivering a message through enemy territory that would save 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother, from charging into an ambush. The portrait of the Great War that Mendes, co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and cinematographer Roger Deakins paint is not just bleak, but nihilistic. As Blake and Schofield run through these abandoned trenches and hostile war zones, it’s easy to be so overwhelmed by the setting’s rampant negativity that any action loses its meaning. But the film focuses so strongly on these two, offering a sense of intimacy and claustrophobia that is two steps removed from Son of Saul. That intimacy helps the audience latch onto the small morsels of character development given in between the bombastic action scenes and tense confrontations, so their hope becomes our hope – this idea that if these two can do this one good thing, even if it won’t matter in a war with a horrific death toll, even if another massacre will happen next week, then things might be okay.
Aside from the basic premise, there’s not much to discuss in 1917’s plot. Like its common point of comparison Dunkirk, the film’s greatest strengths lie in its spectacle and set-pieces. However, unlike Dunkirk, which I am not a huge fan of, 1917 manages to add in just enough serviceable dialogue and emotional beats to ground the chaos to a singular point. Where Nolan’s film had a swath of characters all experiencing hell, Mendes’ is locked into two well-performed young men with a goal and enough determination to make us care. That lock also keeps the tension from becoming monotonous, as the raised stakes and shifting terrains remain effective for the entire film, consistently terrifying and stressing out the audience. Maybe Uncut Gems will dethrone it, but right now, 1917 is easily the tensest film of the year. The two hours felt like 45 minutes, and I was so locked up and clenched through every scene that I was afraid my body was going to collapse in on itself like the house at the end of Poltergeist.
Arguably the strongest selling-point for the film though is the use of long takes. Pretending for a moment that the long takes aren’t stitched together (although there were only a few moments where I could catch a cut which is impressive), there are two takes in the film, each lasting about half the runtime. The long takes are less Birdman and more Victoria, an aesthetic, guttural decision that adds little to the narrative other than helping to stress out (and if we’re being honest, impress) the audience. It’s one of the aspects of the film I can’t intellectualize, and their success in my eyes simply comes down to how pretty and engrossing they were to me, the little game of trying to find the flaws in these hour-long takes just adding to how invested I was in the film.
The investment isn’t perfect though. In addition to the two generally unknown leads, the film has Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, and Richard Madden in small supporting roles peppered throughout. None of these actors are in the film for very long – Firth’s presence in the film is about as long as his presence in the trailer – and except for Scott and arguably Madden, whenever one of these high-profile actors shows up the smoothness and gliding elegance of the film starts to shake. In a film not driven by performances or dialogue, seeing the guy from Mamma Mia! pop in for less than a minute is jarring. There’s not enough time for the artifice of fame to wash away from any of these five men, and their roles, even though the performances themselves are all very solid, come as the weakest moments in the film. It’s reassuring then that they all make up less than ten percent of 1917, but it’s still a disappointing decision that feels like a studio note, as well as a baffling look back to the marketing that focuses so much on such minor aspects of the finished product.
At its core, 1917 is a spectacle film, and it’s a damn good one at that. It doesn’t have much to say about war other than “war is bad, the people who get caught up in wars can still be good”, which is both disappointing and understandable, although it does lack the American nationalism (being a British film) that weighs down so many war films. It’s thrilling, intelligent, economically scripted, and a near-perfect feat of direction and cinematography, adding up to not only Mendes’ finest film to date, but in the upper echelon of Deakins’ work as well. It may not be one of the best films of 2019 (it also may be, this has been a weird year), but it is one of the ones I liked the most, and one I’m already hankering to watch again. It’s not faultless cinema, but it is a faultless magic trick, and when the lights go down and the popcorn is poured, sometimes that’s the best thing a movie can be.
A- Review 1917 2019 andrew strong benedict cumberbatch birdman christopher nolan colin firth dean-charles chapman dunkirk george mackay krysty wilson-cairns mamma mia mark strong night at the museum: battle of the smithsonian poltergeist richard madden roger deakins sam mendes son of saul uncut gems victoria