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    1917 (Sam Mendes 2019)

    SAM MENDES: 1917 (2019)


    Mission impossible

    Most war stories focused on infantrymen are collective stories. The soldier is part of a structure: squad, platoon, company, battalion, regiment. At the lower levels or perhaps any level the aim is not to be noticed. But Sam Mendes' thrilling, remarkable World War I film is about a mere lance corporal, Will Schofield (George McKay), who is sent on an urgent and seemingly impossible mission and must go it alone, against the tide and in face of great danger. It's only by a miracle that he gets through. He carries an order that saves 1500 men from slaughter by the Germans by cancelling a doomed assault. This is a harrowing tale with a "real time" feel. The story which Mendes created with cowriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns is (as we're told at the end) freely reconstructed from the accounts of Mendes' grandfather about his own wartime experience.

    Yes, it's a tour de force, which has impressed some critics and annoyed others. (Their displeasure has brought down the Metascore.) They're all talking about the writer-director's choice to have the noted cinematographer Roger Deaakins shoot and the editors cut the film to look like a string of continual "long shots." Yes, the filmmakers refrain from the choppy back-and-forth fast cuts enabled by digital, which so few can resist. The shots and edits of 1917 contribute to a sense of unbroken attention to L/Cpl Schofield. But if you didn't know what a "long shot" or a "single take" were, this wouldn't be such a big deal, because it's just closer to how we experience life.

    What to me seems more singular about 1917 is the remarkably detailed and realistic mise-en-scène. All the focus is on L/Cpl Schofield and the man who gets the assignment and takes him along, L/Cl Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who doesn't make it all the way. But Mendes has given us as extraordinarily suggestive a picture of the WWI Western European Front as we've ever seen. There are the ravaged fields, the ruined French farms and villages, the camps. Including of course the trenches, very elaborate English ones and later, when the men are crossing enemy lines, a set of quite different abandoned German ones ("Even their rats are bigger," the young men note). This to me is what was distracting, not the shots, but in a good way. The WWI battlefield landscape is rich and wonderful. The soggy clay dirt, the puddles of wet, the nasty barbed wire, the rats: it all comes to life. They are in it, and so are we.

    There is a terrific scene when L/Cl Schofield gets through a division of trenches going the wrong way, then encounters a traffic jam of motley big and little lorries with a very grumpy British officer yelling to be let through. The Lance Corporal is identified and put in a vehicle jammed with men from all over, then it's he who leads the push to, well, push it out of the mud when it gets stuck. The glory, the absurdity, the fear, and the muck: Mendes captures it all, while only tracking one man. The $90 million production budget has been used astutely.

    Also terrific are the two main actors (not counting some notables, including Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and "Fleabag's" Andrew Scott, also good in minor roles). Chapman and McKay have 1917 young Englishmen faces. McKay, at 27 a veteran actor whose first film came when he was eleven, isn't handsome. But he is chiseled, innocent, and fresh in a way that reads right for the period. He has a distant look of old photos. For me it's believable that when he's left to complete the mission alone, he takes the sense of duty doubly upon himself, despite his earlier wish that Blake had picked someone, anyone, else.

    Could one young man do all this?P Perhaps. There are extraordinary acts of valor in war and moments of freak luck. L/Cl Schofield already has won a medal, though he traded it to a Frenchman for a bottle of wine. It's just a piece of tin, he says. "There was a ribbon too," says C/PL Blake. There's sprezzatura in that trade that hints this man is made of finer mettle than at first appears. This adventure is more germane and more conceivable than the six-year one we see played out in Václav Marhoul's adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński's The Painted Bird.

    Mendes says he meant to make an action film, not a war film. Like Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, with whose complex chronology 1917 is a stark contrast, Mendes is at least reshaping the genre and visibly smashing conventions, realistically recreating historical events in new ways. He has made one of the best films of the year, one that needs to be pondered. This is just a quick note from the Front. To be seen, like DUnkirk, in the largest format possible.

    1917, 119 mins., debuted in the UK Dec. 4, 2019 in a royal command performance. Limited US release Christmas 2019; wider US and UK release, Jan. 10, 2020. Metascoore: 79%.


    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-05-2020 at 10:21 AM.


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