Home Uncategorized Review: Sam Mendes’ World War I drama ‘1917’ is a technical triumph — and a…


Review: Sam Mendes’ World War I drama ‘1917’ is a technical triumph — and a…

by Ace Damon

Sometime after dusk in "1917", a virtuously severe dispatch of the front lines of World War I, a British soldier, Lance Cpl. Schofield (George MacKay) crosses a dark building between the ruins of a bombed-out French village. There, in a shadowy room, lit by air flames and shaken by distant explosions, he stumbles upon a frightened young woman (Claire Duburcq) hiding.

They communicate in gestures and whispers. She sees that he is injured and tenderly touches the bloody head; he shudders in pain but gratefully accepts. There is a surreal and even ghostly feeling in this encounter, a fleeting moment of comfort in a place full of death. To the public, it is a delicate interlude in a dark and violent story; Schofield offers relief, but there is no escape from a hell on earth that has been going on for three years and shows little sign of abating.

The film's simple title and firm timeframe – which runs for two consecutive days in April 1917 – serves as a dark reminder to the public that the war will continue for more than a year. But most of the time, English director Sam Mendes (who wrote the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) avoids granting us any knowledge not yet possessed by his characters. Its goal is to convey, with engaging realism and real-time immediacy, the experience of two men on a night mission – one that may seem small in the larger context of war, but, like many of these missions, serves a crucial purpose.

Inspired by the stories Mendes heard from his grandfather Alfred Mendes, a veteran of the Belgian war front, "1917" follows Schofield and Lance Cpl. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), young people stationed in northern France. Blake is the loudest and liveliest of them, a storyteller with a poetic trait who eagerly rhapsodizes his family's cherry orchard. Schofield is quieter, more withdrawn and disillusioned. The trauma of the Battle of the Somme is still fresh, leaving him with terrible memories and a medal he does not wear or speak.

Colin Firth in the movie "1917".

(François Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)

More horrors and bravery tests await. The thriller thriller storyline is started by a general (Colin Firth) who instructs Schofield and Blake to travel across miles of bloody and bombarded terrain to issue a warning to the Devonshire Regiment's Second Battalion, which is planning an imminent attack on the German forces on the run. But what appears to be a retreat from the enemy is actually a brilliant tactical calculation; 1,600 battalion troops, including Blake's brother, are heading for a cleverly orchestrated trap.

And a cleverly orchestrated trap seems as fitting a way as any to think of '1917', where the cruelty and brutality of the Great War was largely tamed by aesthetic submission. The film is a powerfully incongruous hybrid: the lament of a soldier and the delight of a formalist. Meeting with great cinematographer Roger Deakins, his collaborator on "Skyfall", "Revolutionary Road" and "Jarhead", Mendes built "1917" to simulate the look of an unbroken scene – a long, winding tracking scene performed. without any visible cuts. (The clever edition of peekaboo is by Lee Smith, who also cut "Dunkirk" by Christopher Nolan, a war epic as fragmented as this one.

The result is a two-hour tightrope walk that keeps us alert to these men and their mission, never allowing us to look away, even when we want to. When Blake and Schofield are given their marching orders, the camera is already following them through trenches of hundreds of meters. Mendes fills the widescreen picture with skilled pointillists; he likes to step back and let the background come into focus, giving us enough time to register the sight of other soldiers – working, playing and fighting in their filthy uniforms and steel helmets – before taking us to the next episode.

The camera will stand next to Blake and Schofield as they exit the ditches and cross no-man's land etched with craters and barbed wire. (Dennis Gassner's project of scorched earth production.) Incredible inches, they roam a twisted maze of deserted fortifications and sun-bleached human skeletons, embedded and forgotten on the uneven ground, all silently witnessing a seemingly endless war.

George MacKay in the movie

George MacKay in the movie "1917".

(François Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)

At such times, "1917" sets aside the chaotic grammar of the combat image and assumes the silent eloquence of a post-apocalyptic horror movie. Rarely did two men seem so alone: ​​Here there are only the remnants of the battle, some trembling mice, and the stench of mass death. The overall effect of Mendes' lock and camera work, as startlingly complicated as it may have been, is surprisingly simple and simple. His technique weaves an undeniable spell, sometimes deepened and sometimes broken by a Thomas Newman score, from low threatening drones to majestic orchestral waves.

Mendes is good at creating tension within the frame, even when his slightly floating, lightweight camera conveys the strangely pleasant feeling of a guided tour. He has a knack for luring his protagonists and audiences into a strange calm, just to shake us with a showman's sense of cunning. There are at least two moments when the movie brutally ambushes its characters – once with a circling fighter blinking “North by Northwest” and then with a devastatingly fast attack that occurs, perversely, when the camera it is not looking.

I realize that almost everything I wrote characterized "1917" in terms of visual choreography, which underestimates the actors – MacKay and Chapman are very good at heart – but also speaks of the limitations of Mendes' formal presumption. He is one of many filmmakers, from Max Ophüls and Andrei Tarkovsky to Alfonso Cuarón, who adopted the tracking photo, in which time itself receives weight and physicality through the unified movement of the camera. Some films have extended the technique to feature films, such as Alexander Sokurov's "Russian Ark" (2002) and Sebastian Schipper's "Victoria" (Sebastian) (2015), both performed the hard way without post-production tricks.

On the other hand, films like Alejandro G. Iñárritu's "Birdman" and now "1917" create their visual continuity using techniques that would be unimaginable in the pre-digital age. One of the distractions of Mendes's movie is that you can spend a lot of time looking for these hidden editions, those moments when the camera blinks effectively. (It's like a high-tech version of Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 marvel, “Rope.”) It's a fun game, but it also comes to the paradox of so much long-lived cinema: a device that is meant to be continuous and immersive can't fail to draw your attention to your own impeccable craftsmanship.

Perhaps it is because Schofield and Blake are roaming the Gallic terrain, but "1917" sometimes resembled the words of two French-born filmmakers who were once traveling companions. "There is no anti-war movie," is a quote often attributed to François Truffaut, and it was Jean-Luc Godard who said, "Film is true 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie."

Intentionally or unintentionally, "1917" seems an attempt to reply to both famous statements. Genuinely uninterested in glorifying the spectacle of war, Mendes uses technological tricks in search of a new kind of cinematic truth.

Mark Strong in the movie

Mark Strong in the movie "1917".

(François Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)

I think he kind of can. There are times when the uninterrupted visual momentum gives "1917" the feel of a virtual reality installation, and others when the simulation of raw immediacy slides to reveal the calculated construct below. Mendes' films have had a weakness for overly untouched surfaces – evident since his Oscar-winning debut film “American Beauty” – and his slightly detached and slightly bloody aestheticism creates a strange but fascinating fit with the war movie, a genre that often encourages filmmakers to unleash a complete sensory attack.

"1917", by contrast, maintains composure, giving you the distance to process your assiduously distributed horrors; occasionally it only impacts internally, but it doesn't try to convince you to send it either. If Mendes did not make an antiwar movie in the unreachable sense of the Truffle, he made a thoughtful and enlightened argument about the futility and infinity of armed conflict, a message that reverberates far beyond these particular front lines to the present.

At one point, a wise captain (Mark Strong) tells Schofield that even if he arrives at his destination, his attempt to cancel the attack may be in vain: "Some men just want the fight." It is one of several peripherals. characters – played by actors such as Firth, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch and an especially good Richard Madden – appear to offer some often cynical words of advice before sending them on their way.

Their famous faces may take you briefly from the movie, but seeing each one is enjoyable – and instructive. Taken together, they suggest that "1917" could best be approached not as a work of strict realism, but as a known hybrid of authenticity and artifice. Remember that Mendes is a longtime theater director, which may explain some of the film's most blatant gestures: in a dazzling night scene, Deakins' camera climbs …


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