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I had heard about some things about 1917 before it made a plunge into the awards season, that a lot of people seemed to like it either because or in spite of its real-time, one shot nature. Or that it could not overcome this hurdle, but was still getting a lot of awards season praise. I had seen the trailer and was impressed, but there are only so many hours in the day, until one day when you're forced to sit at home and fill that time and thus, as a war film devotee, it appeared in my hands!
Sam Mendes (Spectre), from a story that was told to his grandfather and eventually reached his ears. Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Blinded By the Light) are tasked with a mission; to deliver a message to a Brigade Commander to retreat from a pending attack, as it would put the lives of almost 2,000 British troops (and Blake's brother) in jeopardy and waiting German counterattacks. The two troops have until the morning to deliver the message and stop the British from falling into the trap.
The things that 1917 does right, it does REALLY right; you get the hook of the film early, the opening moments bringing the two soldiers into the trenches (literally, by Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins) bring you in with them, and then for the majority of the film, your teeth are clenched and knuckles white. You want to see them get across the lines to get the message and stop the troops/Blake's brother from getting killed. There are moments of respite that are surreal that they could be in a Malick movie, but (as Mendes says later), the moments actually happened, upon further research. The continuous unfolding of events onscreen may not be in a continuous shot, but the film is edited well that you would look hard under first glance to catch one or two. The mission and the unrelented nature of getting to the end point are top-notch in the way Mendes lets them unfold.
However, there's a certain emotional detachment in the way 1917 goes about this, that you're left wondering if there should be more there. Or put another way, take a look at Saving Private Ryan, a movie with a similar premise of sorts (the emotional collateral benefit to a military mission), and both have a massive third act full of gunfire, explosions and the like. Ryan tends to be a little bit chintzy in the way the events play out, but the first two acts you have had Tom Hanks in front of you, providing the face behind the task involved, and the very real emotional connections to them. You don't get Tom Hanks' delivery in 1917 (though to be fair not many people could pull it off), but there is nothing close enough to it. The film really is about the mission and the journey towards it.
There is an emotional moment or two, particularly at the end of the film when Richard Madden (Rocketman) rounds out the cameos of familiar British actors in the film with a scene that mostly focuses on his face during the scene. He provides the outlet that the viewer looks for to that point, but it seems to be a little too late for the sake of the film's merits. Other people in the film who appear as officers provide human tones of sympathy for the mission and help how they can, but they are just that, fleeting glances that make you long for the two young corporals to get to where they need to go.
This is not a wholescale indictment of 1917 because overall it is a good movie. But within the war film genre, the gimmick of ‘one take' is what the viewer is left to remember, but also it's not even a gimmick since there is no one take! So you are left with an impressive yet unbalanced and perhaps even incomplete movie.
The 2.39:1 widescreen version of 1917 is magnificent. Shot in 4.5K and given a 4K intermediate, the glass blades in the fields are discernible and vivid, and later, mud that is ankle and/or wrist deep has texture to the image, as do the uniforms. You can almost pick out individual dust grains at times, and there is an overnight shot (you'll know it when you see it) that looks beautiful, almost like Deakins knew this was the point to drop everyone's jaw, which he does of course. I can only imagine how breathtaking the 4K disc looks because on Blu-ray few are going to come close to matching this one.
The Dolby Atmos track is also just as magnificent. The ambient noises as Schofield and Blake walk in and around the trenches are effective, and you get jolted by a German tripware with the thunder of the subwoofer. Channel panning in airplanes and dogfights is convincing and effective, and in the penultimate battle sequence, the din of men yelling, whistles blaring while gunfire rages and mortars hit is a perfect balance of chaos and clarity, accentuated by Thomas Newman's phenomenal score, which shines throughout the film. Truly outstanding work.
Universal pulls out a lot of content in substance for this, starting with a commentary by Mendes. He talks about the story points he wanted to get, and the shot intent and explanation for some of the angles, and adjusting to the actors as they worked. He gives appropriate propers to the cast and crew as they come up, and talks about how some scenes required a ton (56!) of takes, while noting some of the cuts as they go. Shot inspiration and his experience from the Bond films was part of his influence here and he discusses working with Deakins. There is some narration of the onscreen events but overall this is an excellent track. Deakins has a solo commentary of his own that is more technical focused, discussing how and where the camera was, and who was holding it, at any particular point. He also gets into shot breakdown and the challenges in a scene, as well as things such as lenses, and mentions any production headaches that arose. It is a little drier than the Mendes track but worth the time if you're inclined.
Following those two tracks are several featurettes; "Weight of the World" (4:29) features Mendes discussing his career point prior to doing the film and his inspiration for it, and the production design and cinematography are touched on. "Allied Forces" (12:01) is the closest thing to a making of for the film, but past getting into location and continuity, doesn't dive too deeply. "In the trenches" (6:59) gets into character inspiration and general thoughts by the cast and crew on same, while "Recreating History" (10:25) focuses on production design, and includes a lot of drone shots of the sets. "The Score of 1917" (3:52) gets into Newman's work.
At the end of the day, I feel like the 3 Oscars 1917 are about right; they were mostly technical because I think that's where the true focus of the film was and the other aspects around it, including the story and the storytelling, seemed to fall in the same direction. The film is a technical gem (neck and neck with Malick's A Hidden Life, coincidentally enough, and the extras, including Mendes' commentary, make it a well-rounded package. Is it perfect? No, but it's darned close.