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Mendes’ ‘1917’ puts us right into the trenches

Dan Webster

One of the great depictions of war, Sam Mendes' "1917" won two Golden Globe awards — Best Picture, Drama, and Best Director (for Mendes). Following is my review of the film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

From Lew Ayers reaching for a butterfly in 1930’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” to Bradley Cooper peering through the scope of his rifle in 2014’s “American Sniper,” cinema has filled screen after screen with images of war.

Few films, though boast the moment-by-moment intensity of Sam Mendes’ Golden Globe-winning effort titled, simply, “1917.”

You’re likely familiar with Mendes, he having previously directed 1999’s “American Beauty” (for which he won a Best Director Oscar) and the 2012 James Bond feature “Skyfall.”  “1917,” though, has more in common with his 2005 film “Jarhead,” in which Jake Gyllenhaal portrayed a Marine deployed during the Gulf War.

Unlike that film, though – which is more about the psychology of war than any real depiction of actual battle – “1917” is short on philosophy and long on action. Mendes, working from a script that he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, puts us squarely in the mud, blood and furor of trench warfare as it was waged during World War I.

He does that by keying on two main characters: Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (played by George McKay), who are ordered to complete a difficult – maybe impossible – mission. They are to leave the trenches, cross No Man’s Land, pass through what may be the German lines, and find a couple of battalions of British soldiers who are on the verge of an attack.

An attack that, we are told, is a trap. Blake and Schofield are to warn the commanding officer to call off the engagement. Furthermore, they are warned that if they fail, some 1,600 lives will be lost – Blake’s brother’s among them. So they set off, Blake determined, Schofield – nearly as young as Blake yet already a veteran – more cautious.

Mendes’ conceit in depicting all this is to film it in what feels like real time (even though the less-than-two-hour running time does cover several hours) and to do so in what clever editing makes it seem like one single take. Mendes’ camera – overseen by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins – follows our protagonists, perched so close to one or the other that “1917” feels at times more like a first-person-shooter video game than a feature film.

But what Mendes has created here is no game. That becomes ever more clear as Blake and Schofield proceed, at times meeting other characters who either warn them that their efforts aren’t so much foolish as they are suicidal (such as the officer played by Andrew Scott), who give them advice (another officer played by Mark Strong) or who remark about the ultimate futility of the whole war (a final officer played by Benedict Cumberbatch).

The mission itself becomes an exercise in abject endurance, both physically with obstacles to overcome such as snipers, crashing aircraft and corpse-strewn streams, and emotionally with a singular loss that follows, ironically, an act of compassion.

Throughout it all, Mendes makes sure that we can’t look away, that we feel what the characters feel. Which, in the end, is not an energized mood of jingoistic fervor but a far more appropriate sense of somber reverence.

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