A Dangerous Mission Marks Sam Mendes' ’1917’ Oscars Frontrunner For Best Film
A war film drama that deserves every accolade it’s received, Sam Mendes’ 1917 is both great storytelling and a technical masterclass in filmmaking
With the number of awards it’s garnered over the current film awards season, there’s much expectation riding on Sam Mendes’ 1917. And this is a wonderful feat of filmmaking, both from how the suspense in the narrative is sustained, and in the more than admirable technical aspect of having brought this film to cinematic life. That it’s enjoying box office success on both sides of the pond, can only be wonderful news for the team behind the film, as it’s also found an unexpected and receptive audience.
Credited as director, Sam Mendes also co-wrote original screenplay, loosely based on stories told to Sam by his paternal grandfather. And reprising how they’ve worked together in such films as Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, and Skyfall, Mendes has Roger Deakins on board as cinematographer—and indeed, what a duo they make in this film! True to form, Deakins has been taking the Best Cinematography award in most of the awards shows, and I don’t doubt he’ll earn his second Oscar come this Sunday.
The narrative has to do with two Lance Corporals, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) being sent behind enemy lines and No Man’s Land to deliver a message in less than 24 hours: To warn a British company that the attack they’re launching is in fact a trap set by the Germans.
That’s basically an issue of saving the lives of 1,600 of their comrades, along with the urgency heightened by the fact that Burke’s older brother is in the attacking company. This is 1917, World War l, and so we’re talking miles of trenches, of a war where countless young recruits were mowed down with efficiency in the course of engagement with the respective enemy forces.
It’s a simple enough premise, but in the hands of Mendes and Deakins it turns into a tension-riddled, suspenseful hike into hostile territory. Much has been written about how the film is structured to look like one long take (or two at most). But Mendes has made no bones about the fact that it’s not in reality a one-take exercise. Rather, he’d like to call it a ‘no cuts’ film, where we never cut away to another location or set of characters, but doggedly follow our two young soldiers as they encounter officers, fellow soldiers, the enemy, and geography.
The cast includes the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Richard Madden, Andrew Scott, and Mark Strong; but they’re mostly cameos or small incidental roles. And truthfully, it works that the film is executed in that manner. With this, the focus truly is between our two young corporals and how the mission they’ve been given becomes one where their very lives are perpetually held in the balance. The relationship that’s created, the dependence on each other, the steadfast belief in the urgency of the mission—they all help create the nail-biting tension we’re subjected to.
You’ll love how when our heroes enter a German-occupied French village at night, as the film takes on a surreal quality—one again, showing how much of a master Deakins is, giving us diversity of lighting and camera work within one film. And ultimately, it's Mendes and his story about the small heroic acts that don’t get recognition or acclaim during the war. We look at what our two intrepid soldiers do in the course of this film, and honestly, you don’t get medals for this sort of valor or mission, and yet, you can’t argue with how they saved so many lives.
Both about the supreme folly of war, and how unheralded acts of heroism emanate from it, 1917 is one impressive achievement, and should stand tall in the years to come when we talk about the war film genre.
1917 is showing in cinemas on Wednesday, February 5.
Photos via Rotten Tomatoes