1917 is a movie that has received a lot of media attention since its release for its commercial and critical success, but also more recently because it won the top honor at the 2020 Producers Guild Awards, an award show considered a psychic when it comes to predicting the film that will win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The film is directed by Sam Mendes, of American Beauty and the later Bond films fame, the latter on which he collaborated with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who lends his talents to this film. It follows two World War I soldiers, Blake and Schofield, as they frantically travel across German-occupied France to deliver orders to a battalion of 1,600 men to stop and attack that would kill all of them.
After a few days of thinking over this movie, I think it’s pretty apt to compare it to 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. For starters, they’re both action films that gathered massive critical acclaim and attention from awards ceremonies. They’re both very stylish films, and even though 1917 features a lot more muted colors, this doesn’t stop it from being one of the most visually impressive movies of the year. Mendes and Deakins employ the one-take method of shooting from Birdman, with clever hidden cuts interspersed throughout the film, which became a fun scavenger hunt for me trying to find where they are. This continuous-shot style really helps to amp of the tension, the real and raw feeling of this movie, and the urgency of the plot. And all other aspects of the look of this movie, like production and set design, are absolutely perfect. A long-take through an excellently constructed trench line, a walk through an other-worldly looking No Man’s Land, and a ride along a road lined with dead cows are moments that stick out in my mind as really creating an authentic atmosphere. One more instance of beauty I want to mention is a sequence that’s featured in the trailer where Schofield is moving through the remains of a burnt-out city, the flashes are so unbelievably bright light up the city like a massive lightning storm, revealing every crack and crevice. Usually, I wouldn’t like a movie taking so much time to relish in its own shots, but this moment gets a pass, because it looks so amazing to me, so breathtakingly gorgeous on the big screen, it’s almost indescribable, maybe a top ten most beautiful shots I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Continuing with my Mad Max comparison, this movie has a lot of the same issues I have with that movie. For one, I feel like with action movies in this vein, the non-stop tension type, they all get a little tired by the end. I can see the script trying to maneuver out of its groove towards a conclusion, and it just never ends up feeling satisfying. I will say, the first 20-30 minutes of this movie is a masterclass of tension, but then something happens, something that I simply cannot describe without spoiling arguably the most crucial part of the movie, that kind of ruins the stakes for me. To keep the tension up, it can’t feel like the character(s) are invincible, and I feel that that’s exactly what happens.
Writing this about a week after seeing this movie, I realize that 1917, like Mad Max: Fury Road, just doesn’t stick in my head as well as other movies do. They’re incredible pieces of filmmaking, but without a really strong character arc (but props to George MacKay for an outstanding physical performance) or thematic drive, I feel like setpieces and sequences only go so far. And, while I like this movie more than Mad Max, it isn’t the Best Picture type, and I don’t think it deserves it either.
I’ve only seen both movies once, but I don’t plan on revisiting them anytime soon. After the first viewing, the shock value’s gone. And after that, what else am I left with? Not much, I’d say.