By Chic DiCiccio
The finest moment of “1917” occurs while Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) hides inside a bombed out French building. It’s nighttime, he’s injured, and hiding from German soldiers who are aware of his presence. He stumbles across a French woman, also hiding out, who helps him, feeds him and it’s all done by two people who can barely understand each other’s language.
It’s a beautifully quiet and poignant moment that is surrounded by death and destruction. Schofield silently wonders if he should stay hidden and abandon his mission, which could result in the death of 1,600 of his fellow countrymen. Of course, this reluctant hero presses on.
If you remove the technical brilliance of “1917,” it’s a story about two men, Schofield and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), tasked with risking their lives in order to save an entire British battalion. That story alone is captivating, but director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins elevate the material to a level that hasn’t been seen since “Saving Private Ryan.”
The premise of “1917” comes from a story that Mendes’ grandfather, Alfred Mendes, told to him when he was a child. Mendes, along with co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, expounded on that story that is told via one continuous camera shot, albeit with mind-boggling editing by Lee Smith.
By design, “1917” is a very episodic movie with loads of intense action, which are surrounded by moments of calm. The character development is slightly lacking, but there’s enough there to become invested in Schofield and Blake. The importance of their mission is the driving force here and more than enough to keep viewers completely riveted.
MacKay and Chapman are excellent and the fact that they aren’t household names adds to “1917.” It makes it far easier for them to disappear into the roles and adds to viewer stress.
There are several big-name actors who appear (Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Richard Madden, Mark Strong), but their roles amount to nothing more than cameos. In a way, those appearances add gravity to those moments, as it makes it feel that much more important.
Make no mistake, the star of “1917” is the film itself. Mendes’s ambitious, almost unrealistic vision is flawlessly completed with three or four signature sequences that will be seen in famous film montages for years to come. There are two moments that when paired with Thomas Newman’s score are nothing short of inspiring, even as the screen is filled with fire, bullets and death.
It seems like nearly every great movie released this time of year is deemed an Oscar contender, but “1917” is a shoo-in for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, Best Cinematography and essentially every technical and art-related award available. If not for the fact that he’s an unknown and the field will be absolutely loaded, one could make a case for MacKay as Best Actor.
Sam Mendes has directed plenty of great movies, but nothing compares to “1917.” The one-shot technique is not a gimmick and fully makes sense in the context of the story being told. It’s a testament to bravery and sacrifice, and should be the Best Picture winner of 2019.