A Most Violent Year: ‘1917’ Sends 2019 Out With A Bang

1917_George-MacKayThe upcoming Oscar race just got a lot more competitive.

One of 2019’s last releases to screen for critics and awards voters, Sam Mendes’ 1917 was the final remaining question mark of the past decade in cinema. It turns out, the 2010s decided to go out with a bang.

1917 is a stunning technical achievement, a war epic unfolding in a single continuous shot, with only one temporal interruption in the narrative (when our lead character blacks out). The “one-take movie” trick has been performed before, in everything from Rope to Birdman, but it’s never felt so seamless, so much like pure movie magic. I have yet to read about how this movie was made, but I almost don’t want to. It’s exhilarating, watching 1917, and not knowing.

The film follows two corporals in the British Army, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. There’s a very high likelihood that they’ll be killed before they’re able to relay their message.

Unfolding in real time, 1917 is able to build tension in a way that’s distinct from modern war classics like Saving Private Ryan or The Hurt Locker. There are moments of downtime, where there’s no visible threat, but we’re constantly on alert — just like soldiers at war. In this way, 1917 plays out almost like a horror movie.1917-Dean-Charles Chapman-George-MacKayBut 1917 delivers more than the aesthetically similar Dunkirk‘s non-stop action and white-knuckle suspense. There are moments of grace. Moments of tenderness. Moments of surreal, nightmarish dread. Moments of dizzying grandeur. Moments to contemplate the futility of war, the senseless waste of young death. 1917 nimbly flows from one of these notes to the next with effortless ease. There is one single visible cut in the film; the rest unfolds before our very eyes, like a symphony we can see.

It’s difficult to imagine another film taking home the Best Cinematography Oscar for this year — Roger Deakins’ work here is jaw-dropping. Sam Mendes seems a lock for a Best Director nomination — the film is flawlessly choreographed, at a degree of difficulty that’s hard to fathom. And if this isn’t a Best Picture contender, I don’t know what is. 1917 is a thrill ride of a movie, but not just in the most elemental way. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, too, and a dazzling cinematic achievement, engaging the heart and mind as much as our base senses.

1917 is the best argument for the theatrical experience we’ve had in ages.

1917-george-mackay

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