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WATCHdog

Light on combat, 1917 is still an immersive and affecting film experience

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1917 001.jpg

In 1917, fighting is not as important as its impact on the characters.

"Your orders are to deliver a message calling off tomorrow morning's attack. If you fail, it will be a massacre." — General Erinmore (Colin Firth)

There are war films and then there are war films.

In director/co-writer Sam Mendes' 1917, George McKay (Ophelia) and Dean-Charles Chapman (The King) portray two young British soldiers dispatched by their commander on a desperate mission to reach an advanced unit that will walk into a German trap in less than 24 hours. Complicating matters, a brother of one of the two soldiers is with the unit and will surely die with all of his men if the mission to warn them fails.

That's the plot. That's all we need to know. There are two boys on a cross-country journey which all odds and logic indicate they won't survive.

As such, the film is short on dialogue. What may surprise those expecting a Saving Private Ryan-type war film is that actual engagement with the enemy is just as sparse. Combat here is neither the subject nor the theme. Action is kept to a minimum, yet seldom have I ever seen a movie, war or otherwise, as enveloping.

The major part of that is that Mendes' film, like Alejandro Iñárritu's Birdman, is designed to seduce us into buying the illusion that its whole two hours is one continuous, uninterrupted take by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who also shot Skyfall for Mendes. Obviously, it's not, but directors have been attempting the illusion since Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948). Other than Iñárritu's Birdman, however, most similar films have taken place in fairly restricted locales, if not on a single set.

The set and location work for 1917 is breathtaking. The viewer is deeply immersed in the experience by virtue of it being closer to the uninterrupted look of real life. I can only begin to imagine how long and closely Mendes, Deakins, the actors and production designer Dennis Gassner must have worked to time out the sequences so Gassner would know how big he needed to design his sprawling exterior sets for the British and German trenches, for the French countryside, and the nightmarish depiction of No Man's Land, littered with corpses, wreckage and the ubiquitous mud. You literally walk every step of the journey with the two main characters.

I don't hold with those who claim that 1917 shies away from its own subject matter by not featuring any prolonged combat sequence. Quite the contrary — it is imminently Oscar-worthy for Best Film, and also for nods to Mendes, Deakins, Gassner and composer Thomas Newman for outstanding achievement in their categories, and it screams to be experienced on a big screen.

No matter how nice your den or basement setup may be, you will never comprehend nor appreciate it at home the way you would in a theatrical auditorium, where you're essentially as unable to look away from events or surroundings as are the characters. For those expecting sweeping battle scenes, that's not what cinema is about. It's about a successful directorial vision, and 1917 is one of the most successful visions I've ever seen.

War is not exclusively about combat. It's about the effect on individuals, and Mendes' latest effort affected me more than any other film released in 2019.

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