1917 is Just Not Another War Movie

When I heard that 1917 (dir. Sam Mendes) had won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture in the Drama category, I was mostly confused. The trailer that I’d seen over a month earlier had been compelling, sure, but not something I imagined deserved anything close to Best Picture. 2019 was a year of great films, from Parasite to Little Women, and there are countless movies that deserve recognition for their excellence. Now that I’ve experienced 1917, I get it.

The film, shot and edited to appear as one long take, follows two young soldiers sent on an urgent mission across enemy lines to call off an attack that would send 1,600 soldiers into a trap. The audience follows the characters the entire time, in real-time, and this is a strength. You don’t get to breathe between cuts. You just have to sit and watch as everything that could go wrong does go wrong.

Despite the movie setting itself in the middle of a war, it’s not a typical war movie. There’s some violence, but the protagonists spend the bulk of their time avoiding it. Their mission is, after all, calling off an attack. Mostly, we see the aftermath of violence. The ruins, the bodies and the trauma. The movie condemns the endless cycles of violence brought about by war. It horrifies. 

The movie is not just striking in its messages and story, but in how the story is told. There are no wasted shots, the cinematography holds you close to the soldiers from daylight to nighttime to morning. One scene, taking place at night, is in constant movement as flares are shot through the darkness, their light bouncing around ruined buildings as they fly by. 

If there is any problem to be had with 1917, it would be the same one to be taken up with most war movies (and many movies in general). This is the issue of representation and of what battlefields actually looked like in the World War I. In the film, there is one Indian soldier — with a small speaking role, which is more than most people of colour usually have in this genre —  but the cast is otherwise mostly white. You could argue that these would be the demographics of the British Army in World War I, but it would be untrue. So, if there is anything to still be done in the genre of war movies, it’s to tell the stories of those that have been left out so far. 

This aside, 1917 is a beautiful movie with a timely anti-war message that shouldn’t be underestimated this awards season. You will spend the whole film sweating, crying or leaning in with bated breath (which is very difficult to do in a reclining seat, by the way). If you need a movie that is a true experience, this one will get the job done.