Tuesday, January 14, 2020

1917: Mettle, Medals, and Awards

War, as we know, is hell. Still, a war movie is a helluva good way to get awards attention. A war film, by its very nature, deals with a serious subject on a huge canvas. It encourages technical virtuosity along with action, suspense, and an epic sweep. And it’s an overwhelmingly male genre, as compared to, say, Little Women. It may certainly not be coincidence that Kathryn Bigelow, the one female director ever honored by the Academy with an Oscar (for 2008’s The Hurt Locker) was recognized for an Iraq-era war film featuring a virtually all-male cast.

Some war films are rollicking (The Dirty Dozen), some are existentially grim (Platoon and The Deer Hunter), and some are jingoistic, designed to arouse our patriotic enthusiasm (John Wayne’s The Green Beret, but also Dunkirk, which reminds us of the savvy heroics of World War II). Some of the very strongest, like Paths of Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front, use the battlefields of World War I to show us that war should never be glorified, that it brings out not the best but the worst in men.

I’m not what you’d call a fan of the war film genre, but I have to admit that Sam Mendes’1917 blew me away. This film is  technically bravura in its use of the camera to involve us in the action: famously, cinematographer Roger Deakins and crew give the illusion of a single take that closely follows two British doughboys through the French countryside on their way to deliver a message on which lives depend. These young leading men are heroic, but not in the way of Gary Cooper’s Sergeant York, who is ace rifleman as well as a saintly savior of his fellow GI’s. Instead Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield are skillfully depicted as average chaps who must rise to the challenge of what is required to them, despite the long odds that they’ll succeed.

It’s a pleasure, of sorts, not to be bogged down in a convoluted plot, involving tricky deviations from the ongoing story. Instead 1917 is a single slog across a no man’s land riddled with pitfalls and pockmarked with corpses of animals and human beings. Which is not to say the film lacks excitement. There are dangers at every turn, and their outcome can not always be predicted. The one-take illusion keeps us breathtakingly close to what’s going on: I have never felt so clearly that I knew what trench warfare was about. But for all the movie’s basic allegiance to reality, it makes room for a surrealistic note. Late in the film, as bodies and minds become battered, there’s an eerie night sequence in the ruins of a devastated town, followed by an ominous incorporating of the plaintive old folk ballad “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” (This is a purely American song in its origins, so its appearance among a troop of British soldiers seems unlikely—but it beautifully fits the mood Mendes has set.)

Does 1917 have what it takes to nab the Oscar for best picture? Its surprise win at the Golden Globes sent shock waves through the industry, but upon reflection I think this may be the film to beat. I’m no fan of Scorsese’s The Irishman; the powerful but intimate Marriage Story seems to be fading from consideration; and Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood  is perhaps too whimsical a treatment of a real-life tragedy to take the top prize. And 1917 has the key virtue of  being made by an actual movie studio, not a streaming service. Enough said.

 This post was written before the nominations were announced. I haven’t seen Joker, but I suspect it would not make me change my mind.

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