The last film to bring tears to my eyes was 2017’s Dunkirk, mostly because I am of a generation of Christopher Nolan fan boys who cannot see him doing any wrong. I was living in Boston at the time, working in a campground, and woefully depressed. I needed an escape from my mundane forty-hour week of cleaning fire pits, picking up trash, and being cussed out by ‘Massholes.’ In that moment of needing a world to jump into for an afternoon, Dunkirk filled the void, providing a story I couldn’t tear my eyes from. I vividly remember moments in that film that were truly so beautiful I couldn’t help but tear up: flames licking a beached warplane, a single admiral standing on a dock, awaiting help that might not come, and the joyous payoff I felt when help indeed came. It was a movie viewing experience that I desperately needed, a transportation into the world of World War 2.
Part of what makes Dunkirk special, is that war movies are difficult to make. Sometimes like Dunkirk, they bring us such excitement that we cannot contain our joy, while others like Avatar are so mired in spectacle that we lose all semblance of story. Admittedly, upon seeing the first trailer for Sam Mendes’ epic, 1917, I did not think it would compare to Dunkirk. It seemed devoid of any soul or any of the magnificent spectacle so typical of war films. I dismissed it as another random film that I may or may not pay money to watch. Then, I read that the whole film was made to appear as if it was one singular shot.
The last such film I had seen was Birdman, by the great Alejandro González Iñárritu, and it floored me. The feat of a seemingly one-shot film is rarely attempted, and even more rarely achieved. Birdman is perhaps the best and only example of a film being done in such a way, and the potential execution of a one shot film with 1917 instantly aggrandized it. Suddenly more interested, I did a little research and found the single shot feat would be executed by Roger Deakins, perhaps the greatest cinematographer working today, leading me to believe that perhaps 1917 would join Birdman in being a shining example of the one-shot technique.
1917 is a film set during World War I in France in, you guessed it, the year 1917. It follows two soldiers who are tasked with delivering a message through no man’s land to another company preparing to attack the Germans, an attack that if allowed to continue, will result in the certain massacre of 1600 men, including the brother of one of the two soldiers. From the beginning, the stakes are high, yet very simple. 1600 men will die if these two soldiers do not succeed. They will struggle through no man’s land, traverse ravaged French towns, and dodge crashing planes. 1917 is an adrenaline hit unlike any other, yet, it is filled with a tenderness and heart that is rarely found within a war movie.
I didn’t want to leave the theater after 1917 finished, I sat in silence, reviewing what I had just witnessed in my mind. I realized quickly that what made this film special was the feeling I felt once the credits rolled, that I had lived the lead character’s lives, that I had been in the mud with them, bled with them, and ultimately, died with them. George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman play characters so believable, so innately human, that when a bunker comes crashing down on them, I feel their claustrophobia. From the first moment, I was hooked. Much of the credit for this lies at the feet of Roger Deakins’ masterful work with the camera, creating a feeling of being a third person, travelling with these two men through warplanes crashing into barns, and dashing through hollowed out french towns. More than the story itself, the technical achievement of 1917 is unique. It could have very easily become a gimmicky film where the creators attempt the one-shot feat in a cry for attention. Instead, their creation is always in service of the larger story. Creative decisions rarely feel contrived. For example, the initial decision to have this film appear as if it is one shot creates a sense that the viewer is a third person following the movie’s two leads and it raises the stakes when these two characters are in trouble. Choices like this create an environment where the viewer cannot peel their eyes from the screen.
1917 is a tour de force in its representation of life’s intimate details. I can recall a specific conversation between the two main characters where one is telling the other about harvesting apples back home. It is a simple conversation and serves no other purpose than to illuminate this man’s life in a way that helps the audience feel an emotional connection with him. Sometimes what is most difficult for a filmmaker to ensure is that the audience cares about his/her protagonists throughout the film, which is why the above apple picking scene affects the audience so profoundly. It is far easier said than done, and far too often spectacle and massive explosions—the ‘macro’—overshadow the vulnerable character moments which cause us as humans to feel and relate to boys sent off to war.
If you are reading this to simply gauge whether or not 1917 is worth your $10, it is. Pay it. In my opinion, it is the best movie released in 2019, and one that can be appreciated by all, not just my clique of nerdy friends who dissect every second of the movies we love and divulge our absurd observations to anyone who will listen.
What makes 1917 so enjoyable, is the vicarious experience I enjoyed while in the theater. The two main characters are so wonderfully relatable and brilliantly written, that I lost myself in their story. This movie struck me not as a war film about two soldiers, but about two men struggling to stay alive. For that reason alone, I cannot recommend it enough.
One of my favorite authors, George R.R. Martin, says that a reader lives a thousand lives whilst a man who doesn’t read merely lives one. I think that Martin’s quote extends further to the realm of film, or indeed, any other means of telling stories. Stories are what allows a man to live a thousand lives. For me, one of those lives was spent in the countryside of France in the year 1917.