A Hopeful Triumph: 1917
If there’s any hope for Universal after the CATS catastrophe in losing $70 million, it lays solely in the hands of Sam Mendes’ loosely based World War I film 1917. It’s cinematic glory at it’s best because it’s origination came from Mendes’ grandfather, Alfred Mendes who told it to him as a boy. Of course it was only fragments but as a filmmaker he was able to piece it together with skillful direction, detailed milieu, a beautiful score by the one and only Thomas Newman, cinematography that glides so seamlessly, all edited in a single continuous shot. Okay maybe there were three instances where it be considered cuts but that’s beside the point. One hefty feat that’s boldly impressive! And if I counted wrong it was because I was deeply immersed in how he brought everything to life. Set design to costumes all married to a consuming, uplifting yet suspenseful score that delivers a climatic punch.
From AMERICAN BEAUTY to REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, and SKYFALL, Mendes can hold his own when it comes to bringing a war picture to the screen because he does it in such a way making you feel like you’re on the journey with Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay). The camera glides seemingly and effortlessly contorting itself around the actors and movement because it’s all about the present moment. Being as it is, time is of the essence, making you feel the urgency almost instantaneously. As the plot goes, these two British soldiers are sent deep into enemy territory with a message by the colonel (Colin Firth) to stop 1,600 men, one being Schofield’s brother to retreat from a planned battle otherwise they’re all toast.
You immediately know the stakes are high and with only two men, one being emotionally motivated while the other is completely in shock as to why he was even chosen in the first place has to mentally check the rationale of the situation in terms of logistically getting there in a short span of time. All the obstacles you can fathom are at the helm of this entire adventure and when it happens at every turn of the way it has a way of getting your heart pumping while controlling your bladder because you drank so much caffeine going into this thing.
According to an interview with Mendes the core of this story is of a messenger who has a message to carry revealing it was actually Alfred Mendes who was the messenger. Sam Mendes had the creative judgment to fill in the blanks and expand on it utilizing truth but fabricating the circumstances and it freaking works. According to a memoir titled, “Autobiography of Alfred H Mendes 1897-1991,” Mendes was a fearless badass, volunteering himself for a dangerous mission, locating positions of surviving men. It’s no wonder he received the recognition that he did and wrote about it. This is what makes preservation so important even if its only passing along fragments of stories while others use it creatively as an inspiration which manifests itself will always be a unique and fascinating thing to me.
From trip-wires to grenades, to planes crashing, to rats, dilapidated structures, to moments of short lived solace, the body and mind can endure so much trauma while constantly being dragged into fourth gear of irrevocable adrenaline. One of my favorite sequences right after Corporal Schofield brushes off a moment of near death, and drops his emotional anchor, is when you feel this sense of defeat in his performance. It makes you ache for him, yet he finds some ailing strength to get up and saunter into a forest, summoned by the sound of a man singing the song “Wafaring Stranger”. It’s viscerally poignant as he draws near the voice to reveal an army of men all geared up and taking a moment to enjoy the serenity in singing about home. Even if it’s for a few minutes it takes you out of the reality of being at war and treasuring the nuance in embracing such clarity of hope despite unknowing what’s about to happen. As Blake sits among the men, his head rests on the trunk of a tree and seeing all the weary exhaustion on his face, he’s really just trying to catch his breath while battling the internal defeat he feels.
1917 is riveting and to honor such an immersive masterpiece you have to see this in theaters. It will grip you from beginning to end and I most guarantee will be nominated for an Academy Award for best cinematography, director, editing, art direction, score, sound design, and actor. No offense to Steven Speilberg but this dominates SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. I defend this film despite the simple plot, because sometimes that’s all you need to make the other collaborative aspects shine such as the cinematography and how set design incorporates great accuracy. The opening shot pulls you into this world revealing bits and pieces then it pans around, up and down, focusing closely and then pushes out. It’s mesmerizing to sink into as the pacing isn’t so much about constant distractions like in BIRDMAN or THE REVENANT. It’s more about being in the moment, each calculated step at a time of revealing all the horrors of war embedded in the confined trenches. So much of the sequences track the various trenches making it like an endless labyrinth where they’re fighting the elements alongside the obstacles in every direction. I wouldn’t critique this film on writing because dialogue is very straightforward and doesn’t need to fill the air or the silence which is often overdone in so many Hollywood films. So thank you Mendes for not overdoing it. This film keeps it’s focus on point, never swaying from it’s goal and I absolutely admire how it was achieved.
For any combat veterans who do see this film, you might have a stronger connection or even bond to the characters and the environment because who else would no better than those of you who have served war, not the critics. So much of the milieu of this film is embodied with post traumatic stress and you see this on the weariness of all the soldiers faces and it reverberates heavily throughout the journey. It’s a feeling and those feelings don’t warrant words. How could they? And this might be why some viewers won’t take to this film because the lack of understanding or experiencing such hell on earth history has shown time and time again. If anything people endure, with conviction, will, and spirit and those who still suffer the hell in those experiences, it’s our job as humanity to collectively be empathetic now more than ever. Our survival depends on it. Listen. Listen to the stories of those who are challenged to tell them. It's never easy nor is it always about winning but about surviving and stopping something from killing loved ones. For those of you interested in seeing this film, it’ll be widely released January 10th. I highly recommend you see it. Cheers! And Happy New Years to all of you!