Spend the money on a really swanky screening
All you had to say to me was Roger Deakins shoots a movie with the effect of it being one continuous shot and I was going to go. Never mind the subject, director, actors, all of that was secondary to me. Deakins has been the mascot of my little clutch of movie buffs for two decades. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dennis Gassner and Thomas Newman too. I just think you should know up front that that was what I was going for.
I saw a headline: “Does 1917 have anything new to say about war?” which I think is a valid question. Without reading that article which would have clouded my gut response, I shall answer, in as little a spoilery way as possible. The movie centers on two babyfaced WWI soldiers who are sent on a terrifying mission across no man’s land through German-held territory to a new front to advise the troops there that their planned attack is a trap and they have to call it off. Many lives are at stake, and to add emotional urgency to the mission, one of the men’s brother is in that battalion. The journey from trench to trench is harrowing, death-defying, terrifying, stressful, and the end result was moving and well-acted by all. I was not disappointed by the visuals, by the music, by the atmosphere of grinding slowly through a terrifying landscape with a deadline, it was amazing and visceral and occasionally even jaw dropping. I did leave my body occasionally for “how did they do that??” wonderment, but mostly I was sucked into the journey of these young men into certain death.
What 1917 adds to a conversation about war is the response to their efforts. The resistance they meet, from both sides of the conflict. The determination that supersedes even the innate drive for self-preservation. Then when it is done, the “well, that was your duty, back to the grinding horror for you” denouement that says what war really and truly is: an uncaring monster that chews and excretes life without discernment or discrimination — anyone can be instantly reduced to a memory, anything can be burned or torn down and it doesn’t matter, just keep moving past the dead horse and step over your downed countrymen to do a job that no one will thank you for.
The amount of peril, close calls, direct injuries, and pain these men endure is just their lot in life. They do it all to save lives. These boys aren’t concerned, not directly, with Austro-Hungarian politics or German philosophical differences or any of that. It’s just get across this patch of mud and torn metal alive so that you can get across that next patch of corpses and wire and perhaps stand for a moment in a meadow of wildflowers and be grateful for the soft sunlight dusting them before you run, run through shelled cobblestone streets dodging lead missiles hurled impersonally at you for being in the wrong uniform. If any of us endured a fraction of what they did, we would be in recovery and therapy for months. These men just did it and went on, which explains a lot about the emotional difficulties their sons and grandsons have since inherited.
Director of photography Roger Deakins outdoes himself, which is saying a lot (see: IMDb) and there were moments where even the heart-pounding terror unfolding on screen was dwarfed by the sheer majesty of how light moved through the scene. I will literally, not figuratively, flip a table if he does not win an Oscar and every other prize conceivable for this movie. The story was gripping and I was at the edge of my seat and the actors really put me in the story (until they encountered various big familiar names, who were distracting though excellent). War is horrible, and don’t forget it for a moment. but sometimes heroes come and go without a single ribbon to commemorate them. It’s a terrific film.