“1917” (Rated C)
Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden
Genre: Action Drama
A “gimmick” doesn’t always have to be a bad thing.
Although we’ve got far more examples of them being tiresome, overwrought and just plain horrible, once in a while, gimmicks can be used to good effect. And sometimes, they can even yield spectacular results.
For proof of the latter, look to the spellbindingly brilliant new film, “1917”.
Just when you thought you’ve seen every possible storyline and variation on a war-themed drama, here we have something that feels fresh and new, and is one of the best films of 2019 (it opened late last year in limited release, but went into wide release in many parts of the world last week).
This is not just another war movie. Director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”, “Skyfall”) co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and based it on stories he heard from his very own grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred Mendes, who served in World War I. This particular story centers around that war’s “Operation Alberich” in February 1917.
In the film, two British soldiers – Lance Cpl. Schofield and Lance Cpl. Blake – receive seemingly impossible orders. In a race against time, they must cross over into enemy territory to deliver a message that could potentially save 1,600 of their fellow comrades, including Blake’s own brother.
This sets the picture off on the first of its successful gimmicks – a war film that’s more of an adventure or quest. Yes, we’ve seen “special missions” before, like “Saving Private Ryan”. But the young soldiers in “1917” are rarely in a battle scene, per se. Just a brisk walk through those infamous WWI trenches become an anxiety-filled moment for them and for the viewer.
And as Schofield and Blake head out into German-occupied zones, this becomes the most extreme and intense version of almost any film we’ve seen with characters on a perilous journey – like the Hobbits in “Lord of the Rings”, Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, or the trapped avatars of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”, but without the humor.
However, while by no means dour and depressing, “1917” does manage in its vivid and graphic display of the horrors of warfare to achieve something one would have thought impossible after more than a century of films depicting war.
Two relatively unknown British actors – George MacKay (“Captain Fantastic”) as Schofield, and Dean-Charles Chapman (“Game of Thrones”) as Blake – help to keep the picture grounded. This, too, might even be a gimmick, as big-name actors might have distracted us from what’s happening on the screen – or might have given you an excuse not to watch, or the wrong reason to watch.
Both British actors, particularly MacKay, do a fine job translating and demonstrating the pain and uncertainty of this (possibly) fool’s errand. From the moment they receive their orders, you are on the edge of your seat, and as anxious and uncomfortable as are they.
From beginning to end, “1917” is an immersive experience. This is enhanced by its mind-blowing cinematography, and what is its greatest and most talked about gimmick. Most of the film feels as though it’s shot in just a series of long, single takes. Minimizing scene cuts maximizes the sense that we are right there with these soldiers, seeing everything up close and from their perspective.
And speaking of gimmicks, if you can, you might want to consider seeing “1917” in the 4D film format known as 4DX. In such theaters, there are motion seats, wind, rain, and even snow. While I’d always regarded this as overkill and probably exhausting, especially if one is watching mainly superhero or animated and family-friendly flicks, I can’t imagine before now a more perfect film to be seen in this way.
Thus, when someone falls, you feel a thump. When a bomb goes off, your chair acts as if you’ve just narrowly escaped being blown to bits. Bullets are fired and you feel a gush of air rush past your ear. It’s at once unsettling but also thrilling, and it in no way diminishes the effect of the horrors of this senseless war. Quite the opposite happens, in fact, as such visceral reactions to what you’re seeing on a screen are exceedingly rare outside of newscasts and documentaries.
So far, “1917” has won the Golden Globe for Best Drama and Best Director for Mendes. It’s also up for nine BAFTAs (British Academy Film Awards), including Best Film and Director. And just this week, it received 10 Academy Award nominations, including best picture, director, cinematography, original screenplay, sound editing and visual effects.
This is filmmaking firing on all cylinders. Along with the cinematography and stellar visual effects, the sound and the musical score are first rate.
Raw! Stirring! Nerve-wracking! An uncomfortable yet unbelievably enjoyable action drama that will leave you feeling you’ve never seen or felt anything like this before.
That’s how you do gimmicks!
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.