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Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: 1917

1917 Chapman mackay

A journey to deliver a message to stop a battle during World War I leads to an intriguing drama in 1917.

There has been a lot of anticipation of what will win Best Picture for the past two months. Lately the recently-released 1917 has become the front-runner. Does it have what it takes to win it?

One thing we should keep in mind is that this is not a completely true story that takes place during World War I on April 6, 1917. This is a story about a messenger delivering a message during the war. According to Sam Mendes, this is a story that has been lodged with him as a child. It’s quite likely the stories came while listening to the tales his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes, would tell. In fact he dedicates the film to him ‘for telling us the stories.’

Another thing we should remember about World War I is not just how it would be the most brutal war in history before World War II, but also of how it changed how wars are fought. In the past, soldiers would fight on horses with swords. Here in World War I, it was mostly ammunition related which made horse fighting useless from this point on. Also with the airplane being invented back in 1903, this was the first war ever that would involve airfighting. That would present a new danger for soldiers fighting on the ground as they would also have to avoid shooting from the air.

We should also take into account that despite the advances in warfare, communication between infantries were limited. It seems odd to see the need for a message to stop a battle to be sent through two men. I remember seeing messages submitted in such fashion in Lincoln which was set during the Civil War. One in today’s modern world would find ‘walking’ this message from the trenches to former enemy territory to the infantry to be an odd thing, considering the technologies we now have. We shouldn’t forget that during World War I, the most communication they had was either Morse Code or landline telephone. As you would see when the scene approaches, the infantry of which the leader would need to receive the message would have no access to any of those forms of communication. Telephone lines were cut out in the field and ‘walking’ the message to the infantry would be the only way they can be reached.

We’ve seen war movies in the past. Most war movies consist of frequent battles and action scenes. Mostly to stir up excitement for the purpose of being an action movie. This is a different story. This is a message of two men who are given the responsibility to deliver a message to a battalion to cease fighting and prevent huge loss. This is not just a message a soldier has to relay to prevent a devastating battle, but one in which threatens his brother. Blake not only must deliver the message but have someone else as the second should one die. He chooses his best friend Schofield who’s reluctant at first. The two put themselves out in the mission but encounter danger after danger. Blake is stabbed to death and then it becomes Schofield’s mission to deliver the message. This is a story that focuses less on battles and more on getting a task done. If you get into the story, you will see this is a task which will put one in the middle of the horrors of war. This being a war movie, there are scenes of action and intensity. Those are scenes that can’t be compromised in a war movie and there’s no compromise here. This film also shows a lot of the horrors and devastations caused during World War I like a devastated town, a brutal plane crash, rat-infested areas, bodies left around decaying, and even how every soldier had to see people from another army as the enemy. No exceptions. This story is a telling account of what those fighting in the war had to deal with.

I know I’ve seen many films by Steven Spielberg where he not only tells a war story but also shows how the war was done back then. Often when he does his story that occurs during times of war, it’s like we receive a lesson of how war was done and are even reminded of the politics and hostilities of the time. Sam Mendes takes a different approach in telling his story in 1917. It’s not as telling as how World War I was done as a Spielberg movie would be, but it does remind you of many horrors a soldier would endure. Keep in mind, this is a single story of a message to be delivered and the treacherous journey to deliver it. One can go through enough horrors in that one journey to know how much war is hell. Even the stories from one person is enough to be a telling account.

Mendes does do something in which Spielberg never did in any of his war movies. Mendes makes this a ‘follow-around’ story. I’ve seen films which have been cases where the story is told by following the lead protagonist around. It’s added to the story in most cases. Here in this film, it not only tells the story but makes one part of the journey. It makes the audience experience the horrors and dangers as they happen. Another addition to the story is how it makes like this film is all one take. It’s not really a single take for almost two hours. In fact I saw in Birdman how they’re able to make a film set in real-time appear to be only one take through some cinematography and editing angles. This is the same here where it does an excellent job of making it look like one take from start to finish. There are many times in which the story is done in real-time and there are time elapses where the audience won’t notice. Nevertheless it works for the film and for the storytelling.

Top acclaim has to go to Sam Mendes. I have something to tell you all. Back when I first arrived in Vancouver, I celebrated my first weekend there watching American Beauty in the movie theatres. It left me captivated from start to finish and I never checked my watch once! Which was rarely the case for me back then. That film, as well as other films that made 1999 a landmark year for film, and the Oscar race that followed would kick-start my enthusiasm for film and the Oscar Race.

Mendes does an excellent job in directing the story and using multiple angles that add to the story instead of distract. The story in which he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns is actually the very first feature-length film script both have written! Wilson-Cairns however has had more experience as she’s written for television and various short films. This is a unique story and a unique way in filmmaking of telling the story. The story succeeds in delivering excitement and intensity as the viewer watches it. The journey ends in a manner different from how the viewer would expect it to end, but it ends on the right note. It even ends on a personal note as Schofield confronts Blake with the bad news. The ending is possibly the most human note of the film and it reminds you of the dignity of the soldiers who sacrificed their lives to fight or prevent tyranny. I admire Mendes and Wilson-Cairns for incorporating that in the story.

As for acting, this is a film that doesn’t allow too much in terms of a developed ensemble cast. Many action films and war films usually don’t have room for well-developed acting; it’s mostly action-oriented. Even the role of the protagonist Schofield, played by George MacKay, is not exactly a role with too much dimension. I do give it credit as the film is more about the story than it is about the characters. Nevertheless I do admire for MacKay delivering a solid performance with a role that lacked dimension. Actually he succeeds in giving the role its most feeling at the very end. The acting of the main supporting role of Dean-Charles Chapman was also very good. His role was given more feeling as this was the character’s brother he was most concerned about. Chapman also does a good job with his role. Most of the other supporting roles had minimal screen time in the film. Nevertheless the performances of Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Maaser and Richard Madden were well-acted despite how limited their roles were.

The film also has a lot of stand-out technical efforts too. First is the cinematography of Roger Deakins which is unique for a war-film and it adds to the thrills and excitement. Next is the film editing by Lee Smith who successfully makes it look like a single take. Next is set designers Lee Sandales and Dennis Gassner for recreating the trenches, battlefields and sunken bridges of the war. Another of top acclaim is the score from Thomas Newman. Newman has composed scores for six of Mendes’ seven films and this is his fourth Oscar nomination for a score for a Mendes film. The score fits the intensity of the story and moments of action. Finally the visual effects team did an excellent job of recreating the war and the battle scenes.

1917 isn’t your typical war movie. It’s a movie that takes you on the journey and involves you in the drama. It even reminds you of the horror while restoring your belief in humanity.

And there you have it! That’s the last of my reviews of the Best Picture nominees! This makes it nineteen straight years of seeing all the Best Picture nominees before Oscar Night! Just a review of the Oscar Shorts and my Oscar-winner predictions yet to come.