Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 21, 2021

1917 is a fresh, poignant addition to war cinema

By BINYAMIN NOVETSKY | January 30, 2020

There were a few things about my own personal experience watching 1917 — a movie nominated for 10 Academy Awards this year — that were particularly frustrating. The group of 12-year-old boys in the back of the theater talking and laughing at pretty much full volume throughout the movie was one. The fact that my viewing experience was also interrupted midway by an entirely unnecessary and poorly placed intermission was another.

Other than those gripes, it was probably one of the most satisfying and mind-blowing experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater.

I saw 1917 the day after it won Best Drama at the Golden Globes, so I’ll admit that my expectations were high. I’d heard that the whole movie appeared to be filmed in one take, which certainly piqued my interest. I also knew that it had some tremendous actors in it, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Richard Madden. What I didn’t know was that none of those actors appear for longer than five minutes in the film. While you initially feel as if you’re anticipating a coverage of important members of the war effort, it’s not their story that you’re following. They’re merely cameos, highlighting the real emphasis of the film. 

The movie is dominated by its two leads, men who director Sam Mendes himself called “nobodies.” I didn’t miss those big names once they left the screen, though. Frankly, I didn’t miss anything while watching this movie. 

The main characters are played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman (who plays Tommen from Game of Thrones), who both provide outstanding performances. As young boys who are both excited and scared to be fighting for their country far from their families, the buildup of such raw emotions is powerfully portrayed. 

This is all helped by the fact that we as viewers never leave their side once. As they crawled through no man’s land, my heart was in my throat. A scene toward the end of the movie depicts them sitting down, thoroughly exhausted from their journey. I found myself panting alongside MacKay. 

It’s difficult to put into words just how invested I was and how deeply I felt like I was a part of the story it was telling. The one-take style was executed perfectly, and the film was cinematically breathtaking. 

In even a scene as simple as two of the main characters walking around a pond, the camera rotated from the other side across the muddy water, capturing a moment of genuinely genius cinematography. The events of the movie were never really boring, but even in the moments where the action wasn’t present, the camera never got lazy. 

When it came to the action scenes, though, I could hardly stay in my seat and was so tense and engrossed in the events unfolding on the screen. The explosions and the gunshots felt like they were happening right next to me. When a character would get shot down, I teared up as if I had known the man myself — like he was fighting beside me and died for a cause I was risking my own life for as well. And when the main characters were in danger, I was terrified. 

Hardly ever before in a movie had I felt this intense a connection to characters. I couldn’t dare think of them dying because they meant so much to me and because I had been with them so personally the entire run time.

Simply put, by the time the movie ended, I felt fulfilled. I had been to hell and back with these characters, and I had seen them fight and bleed to stop more of their fellow men from dying. It was both beautiful and despairing. 

The movie asks you the difficult question of whether or not all you’ve gone through as a member of a collective group is truly worth it — and if the successes and the failures of the mission actually mean anything at all. 

1917 doesn’t answer those questions, but by asking them, it makes every scene in the film more meaningful and memorable. Every struggle is more real when, upon reflection, you’re forced to ask yourself if it was truly all for naught. Every death is more painful when tinged with the possibility that it happened without a real cause. 

Every minute means more when, upon further reflection, you have to ask what it was all for. 1917 was a masterpiece, plain and simple, and it is as worth watching as any movie I’ve ever seen.

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