Food: I enjoyed a bean burrito that I packed from home for this film – consisting of black beans, brown rice, avocado, shredded cheese and sour cream inside a flour tortilla. Incredibly easy, tasty and filling. I was marathoning films all day, and it was the perfect way to get some sustenance in between popcorn and soda sessions.
Film: “1917” (2019) has been a highly talked about film this year, due to its attempt at delivering its entire storyline through a one cinematic shot – or at least the appearance of one. Director, Sam Mendes (2012’s “Skyfall” & 1999’s “American Beauty” are just a few of his notable films), tells the story of two young British soldiers who are sent on a seemingly impossible journey to venture through enemy territory to find their other battalion to deliver a message that could potentially save their 1,600 comrades.
Lance Cpl. Schofield and Lance Cpl. Blake (which for those not versed in Military speak is sort of the equivalent of entry level in ranking) are resting in a field with the rest of their battalion when they are called upon to see their General, played by Colin Firth. He requests that they go on a mission to trek through No Man’s Land and through the German barracks – which are supposed to be empty by now – and find another battalion to deliver a message. They are sent to call off an attack doomed to fail soon after the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line during Operation Alberich in 1917, because it is believed that the Germans had set them up. Lance Cpl. Blake’s older brother is serving in that doomed battalion, so the mission feels personal, and unquestioningly he sets on his way, Schofield reluctantly following behind him. Right off the bat, there are questions about the mission themselves. Will they be able to cross through No Man’s Land in broad daylight without being shot? Will they truly find that the German’s actually retreated, or will they come upon an entire firing squad upon arrival?
The magnificence of “1917” is in the details. Due to the fact that we are following these two young men in what feels like real time, nothing can be glossed over. Nothing is glamorized. We are in the trenches with them, creeping through barbed wire, crawling through mud buried corpses, making small talk to pass the time, or trying to think of nothing at all.
The obvious feat of this film is the one-shot, which is executed flawlessly, with the direction of Mendes and the execution of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has admitted since that he did not know that this was the plan until receiving the script. “It was a bit of a shock,” he has said. None the less, Deakins pulled it off. Each and every scene is not merely trying to accomplish this experiment, but creating stunning visuals – utilizing natural sources of light wherever possible and capturing such breathtaking stills the entire time you might almost forgot the horrors of what you are actually seeing (if only for a second).
The use of sound and soundtrack is impeccable. This also includes the times where silence is loudest. When any music is incorporated, it occurs seamlessly and powerfully, intended solely to articulate a feeling. The set design is strategically crafted. It manages to protect authenticity, while also allowing every shot to work within the one-shot schema and for the crew to maneuver through each sequence in a way that feels effortless, still catching every glimpse of light and expression needed to tell the story. It is mesmerizing to watch it unfold.
Further, the costume and makeup team pull off several incredible undertakings throughout as well. When a character gets debris in his eyes, those eyes remain puffy for the duration of the film. When a character loses blood, their face turns ghastly white right before our eyes. The continuity is crucial in a piece that wants you to believe it is happening in real-time and “1917” does not overlook a detail.
There are several impactful cameos (aforementioned Colin Firth, as well as Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott and Richard madden), but the two relatively new leads are superb. Lance Cpl. Blake, played by Dean Charles-Chapman (who you will recognize from “Game of Thrones”), is less experienced than his companion, and his innocence and charm is so genuine, we understand immediately that many who are sent into war are boys, not yet men, far too young to be facing what they did. Lance Cpl. Schofield is played relative newcomer George MacKay and he carries a significant portion of the film on his shoulders in the same way that Leonardo DiCaprio did for “The Revenant” (2015). He breathes a range of emotion: fear, strength, determination, frustration, love with so much vigor. It is a captivating performance of a lifetime.
“1917” is near flawless. Many war films highlight the drama, the fascination. The reality of war is that it is often immensely pointless and horrifyingly bleak. For anyone to survive, it is not about being the best, or most ready, or most brave. It is a matter of luck half the time. And it is about the will to keep going. This film more than any that I have ever seen illustrates the capacity for a person to press on when everything is telling them to give up. It is the emotional compartmentalization required in the midst of horror. It is every time Schofield sees a rotting corpse and has the split second of fear, disgust, and trauma, and then a second later visibly snaps it out of his mind in the necessary attempt to not break down. It is the sickening knowledge that this is one heroic story amongst the thousands that are never shared. It is one day in a soldiers life, just like any other during war time, where you do what you have to do. And the next day it could all backfire, but you do it anyway. “1917” does not glorify war, it glorifies the human spirit.