Friday, December 6, 2019

1917 Puts You On The Nerve-Wracking Front Lines of World War I

It started out as a relatively normal day. Well, as normal as it can be behind enemy lines in World War I. Still, soldiers Lance Corporal Blake (Dean Charles-Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George McKay) were not expecting their day to go like this. They’ve both been suddenly recruited to deliver a message on foot to another battalion informing them to call off tomorrow’s attack against enemy forces. Turns out the whole battle is a trap. In order to get to their destination, Black and Schofield will have to walk across all kinds of terrain, from No Man’s Land to an abandoned farmhouse to a demolished city, all of which are packed with deadly obstacles.

Typically, war films create antagonists out of vast enemy armies, but that’s not at all the case here for Sam Mendes’ 1917. On the contrary, for much of the story, and especially when Blake and Schofield first set out on their trek, there’s no other human beings to be found. The few enemy humans that do pop up tend to be in small numbers, they’re just as isolated as the lead characters. For the most part, though, it’s the wreckage left behind that proves to be the issue for Blake and Schofield. Corpses rotting in the sunlight, rats scurrying around empty trenches, barbed wire, it’s all here and ready to deliver blows when you least expect it to our protagonists.

Who needs the presence of other human beings to create tension when just the natural environment alone offers up plenty of challenges. Relying on more unique methods of creating obstacles for our heroes is one of 1917’s smartest moves in emphasizing just how dwarfed these two characters are by their circumstances. They can’t even stop to drink from a bucket of milk without finding some new horrible challenge rearing its head. Their relentless onslaught of turmoil makes for an elegantly simple war thriller that proves once again how well Sam Mendes thrives as a filmmaker when being tasked with creation tension-driven cinema.

1917 is an especially impressive entry in his filmography given how stripped-down the production is. You had to wait through slower-paced character-building sequences in his 2002 directorial effort Road to Perdition before getting to the thriller sequences. Here, 1917 just hits the ground running and only rarely pauses for a quick breath. Removing anything beyond just suspenseful uncertainty isn’t something that works for every movie and admittedly, by the end, there are moment where it feels like things are running a bit on the thin side. But for the majority of this particular story about two kids trapped behind enemy lines with an impossible mission, such a barebones story works like a charm. There’s no escape from the horrors of this war for either Blake or Schofield, and by making sure the entire film is just one extended wartime chase scene, Sam Mendes ensures that the viewer also can’t leave these suspenseful confines.

This tale is told through crafty camerawork and editing meant to make the whole movie look like it’s told through one continuous shot. A visual technique utilized in everything from Birdman to Silent House, 1917 uses it to especially strong effect to reinforce the aforementioned notion of the viewer being as stuck on this mission as the lead characters. Filming 1917 in this manner also adds an interesting level of visual equilibrium to the various other characters Blake and Schofield run into. There aren’t an assortment of different shot types (high-angle, low-angle, etc.) to visually signify the personality of fellow soldiers or enemy combatants, they all tend to just appear in the frame.
The lowliest of soldiers and most powerful of generals get the same kind of visual treatment through the direction of Sam Mendes and cinematography of Roger Deakins. Sometimes this is used to convey the idea that everybody is in this war together. Other times, specifically whenever an enemy soldier abruptly shows up in the frame, it’s meant to convey how danger can appear from anywhere without any camera or editing tricks to signify to the viewer in advance that danger is near. That kind of thoughtful detail helps to make sure that 1917’s extended one-shot isn’t just a gimmick, as does the impressive craftsmanship utilized to make the production actually look like it was filmed in one extended take.

This unique piece of camerawork is used to capture a number of noteworthy performances, particularly George McKay’s depiction of a kid thrown way out of his depth with this mission. McKay and the other actors are captured against some truly exceptional cinematography from Roger Deakins. That cinematography is particularly impressive during nighttime sequences set in a ruined city that see Deakins delivering imagery that communicates such devastating sorrow. The anguish of war is captured beautifully in these shots while the determination of the human spirit is admirably manifested through 1917’s bold camerawork and suspenseful storytelling. 1917 has zero chill, as the kids these days might say, but it’s all the better for it.

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