Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Movie review: 1917, dir Sam Mendes (2019)

This British film provides relief for movie-goers who might be tired of American exceptionalism in the form of a certain type of violent war movie and bald celebrations of individual valour.

The story resembles that found in Stephen Spielberg’s 1998 movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ where, in WWII, the Tom Hanks character is sent behind enemy lines to find the brother of three men who had already been killed in action, so that he might be brought home alive. I remember that movie as I was staying at the time in a hotel in Phoenix, Arizona, where I had gone on a business trip. But ‘1917’ is a very different film cinematographically speaking (partly because of the small number of cuts used to make it).

Poetically, as well, ‘1917’ has certain characteristics that set it apart from its predecessor. There are a few small details that function to provide cohesion and to link different parts of the film, to form tonic moments where, due to the eradication of the interstices between things, the viewer is touched by the same brand of inspiration that motivated the filmmakers. I won’t detail these correspondences as to do so would spoil the movie for those who are yet to see it.

At the outset, two soldiers in northern France are selected to bring a message to another fighting unit located about nine miles away, closer to the enemy and beyond what had been the front line of battle. The goal is to stop an attack as Allied commanders had received aerial intelligence that a trap was being set for the British by the Germans. One of the young men is Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and the other is Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George Mackay). As well as the two leads, you have a good performance by Mark Strong, who plays an officer met with on the journey.

While some historical details might be shaky – the battle scene is, I was assured by the person I saw the movie with, not entirely true-to-life – one thing that struck me watching this movie is the quality of the writing. Moments that might otherwise have been empty of action are, here, filled with colour that serves to give characters form and weight, in order that you might more fully experience their humanity. A scene in the back of a truck, during which a group of soldiers talk among themselves, is particularly fine in this regard.

Overall I give this movie, which I saw at a cinema, a thumbs-up. It is not a celebration of war, but a lament. Lest we forget.

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