1917 is not a war movie. It deserves to be our best picture
This article is part of Esquire's Oscars series in which we consider if each Best Picture nominee at 2020 Academy Awards should or should not take home the night's highest honor. Read the rest of the Oscars series here.
1917 is not a war movie. Perhaps that’s confusing, considering it’s set on a field in France during the Great War. (April 6, 1917, to be exact.) Also, of course, that every character the audience meets, save for one terribly frightened local woman and the baby she’s found and is caring for, is cloaked in Allied or German uniforms. There’s a mission, to save an entire battalion up ahead from walking into a trap laid by Kaiser Wilhelm II’s army, laid upon two lance corporals, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), and there’s enough bombing and gunfire to leave your ears ringing for hours.
But 1917 is not a war movie. There’s no bad guy whose ideology must be stamped out; no greater good whose gospel must be spread. There is no long-term goal or objective—the entirety of the film’s events takes place within the span of just eight hours—and there’s no telling who is winning and who is losing. If you knew nothing about WWI before the astounding Sam Mendes directorial achievement (we’ll get to that) began its 117-minute runtime, well, you wouldn’t know a heck of a lot more when it ends. There’s no backstory, no history lesson, no commenting on or reimagining of the world order.
So what is a movie that takes place within war if not a war movie? When I first saw the film, I thought it was a brilliant and intentional illustration of the absurdity of war. Faced with the realization that thousands of their own soldiers are at risk, the local British command’s best plan is to send two young men, one with a vested interest in saving his brother, out over the trenches, through No Man’s land, around a town, down a creek, and into a woods to tell the leaders over there that they’re sending their men into inevitable slaughter. It is—and I’m using this word properly—insane. That they must do it before sunrise tomorrow is even cruel, unfair. That the impossible is doled out as the necessary, with lives on all sides at risk, it just makes you think, there’s gotta be another way, folks.
But as time has passed, I’ve begun to view the piece quite differently. I believe Mendes when he says there are no politics to his creation; I believe the newfound stars, MacKay and Chapman, two relative unknowns who are now quite known, when they echo the sentiment in interviews. 1917 has revealed itself to be, instead, a movie about humanity—a love letter, of the finest degree, to the extraordinary Ordinary.
The most humbling reality of war, which is never far from your mind while watching the film, is just how many young, rounded, anonymous—ordinary—faces are tasked with the unfathomable each day just to bring about infinitesimal change. The number clicks well into the millions as the names blur further from memory. What distance would Lance Corporal Blake go to save his brother? To his death, time and time again. What would Lance Corporal give his friend to complete his mission in his stead? Everything; all of himself.
Could the same not be said of life? A friend’s support, a brother’s love, a desperate search for meaning in our mission; it’s the stuff of every day.
That Mendes’s film should also be so well made, such a thrilling, tense, stunning, depleting, tragic, heroic thing to see as well as to feel, is why it should win Best Picture at the 2020 Academy Awards. In a world where zero-stakes superhero flicks are the mode du jour, dominating the box office as well as studio budgets, Mendes chose to do something radical: chronicle a real breed of heroism that exists within our human limits. It doesn't matter that Schofield and Blake were not actual servicemen. They represent the millions who have been called towards similar tasks in our history, and certainly the many who have been lost.
This essay is not about this, I must add, but the film absolutely must win for Best Cinematography. Mendes tapped the legendary Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, Skyfall) for the job and together they fashioned something truly unique. In a phenomenal achievement, 1917 looks like it was filmed in a single take. The camera never waivers from the heroes’ immediate perspective. It never moves ahead, never extrapolates, never shows the audience what lies in wait.
Since its release, this stylistic has been dragged as a gimmick. And while it is a stressful way to consume a piece—your brain practically begs for more information than the perspective will allow you—there is, I find, true value to that. For the full runtime, viewers are along for the same ride as the characters. Watching it feels akin to viewing a ticking time bomb-thriller more than anything else. Who—or what—is over that ridge? How long have we been knocked unconscious? Are we going to get there before sun-up?
You become part of the action while watching 1917 in a way no other film from the year allowed. (Though it is not, historically, the first production to attempt the style.) There is a reason that directors and actors so often fear long scenes. The longer the scene, the more time there is for something to go wrong, with the cast, the backdrop, or the camera. Mendes’s scenes here are exceptionally long. His vision demanded it. It required the team to build mini set models, to make sure the right number of steps occurred for the runtime, and then months and months of rehearsal; there was, literally, no room for error.
Watching, you feel none of the effort, but all of the thrill. For you, his audience, his vision demands only that you hold your breath, ball your hands into fists full of tensions, and not—never—look away. It's a film we won't soon forget, and one the Academy should proudly, have logged prominently in its history.