Wednesday, January 08, 2020

1917: Oscar Contender

Operation Alberich was a German retreat, but it was a strategic retreat. It was conducted about a month and a half before America entered WWI, so there was obviously a lot of fighting left to do. The war seems endless for two lance corporals, but time is decidedly short for the completion of their fateful mission in Sam Mendes’s Golden Globe-winning 1917, which opens nationwide this Friday.

Cpl. Tom Blake has been recruited to send a message from Gen. Erinmore to the Devonshire Regiment near the Hindenburg Line, for very personal reasons. His brother, Lt. Joseph Blake serves with the Devonshires and stands to die alongside his men unless he and his mate, Cpl. William Schofield, can reach them before they charge into a certain German ambush. The General has written orders canceling the doomed attack, but reaching them in time will be no easy feat. First, Blake and his mate Cpl. William Schofield must traverse No Man’s Land, the German front line, and several active battle sights.

Superficially, 1917 might sound similar to Saving Private Ryan, but Mendes and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns quickly break the mold of the prior film and turn audience expectations on their ears. Once the film really shows its true colors, the only real kinship it shares with Spielberg’s film are the equally intense battle scenes. In fact, 1917’s incidents of warfighting are sometimes even more visceral, in ways that will have viewers seeking a tetanus shot afterward.

Frankly, 1917 is not easily pigeon-holed as an anti-war film or a celebration of patriotism. It is really just about two young kids trying to survive a war they do not fully comprehend. Mendes & Wilson-Cairns’ narrative, based on the reminiscences of the former’s grandfather Alfred Mendes, is a case of the epic becoming acutely personal. The tone is almost Homeric, but without any pretentious baggage.

George MacKay, who was so remarkable in For Those in Peril and also quite impressive in Private Peaceful (a film that ought to be revived while 1917 is buzzy, given its shared themes and co-star), gives a career-making performance as Cpl. Schofield. Dean-Charles Chapman is also quite earnest and ultimately rathe poignant as Cpl. Blake, but it is MacKay’s film—and he carries it, almost singlehandedly at times. Although Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong are prominently billed, they are basically just cameo appearances, portraying officers of varying caliber whom the Corporals encounter as they attempt to complete their desperate mission. Not surprisingly, Mark Strong makes the deepest impression as decent but pragmatic Captain Smith.

1917 was not the best film of 2019, but it was probably the best film that has a realistic chance of winning major Academy Awards. Best picture is a possibility, but Roger Deakins should be a shoe-in to win his second Oscar for best cinematography. The windswept battlefields and amber-red skies refracted through explosions and fires are striking sights to behold, but the long restless, uninterrupted tracking shots really ought to seal the deal. The rigorous craftmanship is evident in every frame and the cast never takes a false step. Very highly recommended, 1917 expands nationwide this Friday (1/10), while continuing in New York theaters, including the Regal E-Walk.