Dir: Sam Mendes
I read today this has been “dubbed the greatest war film of the decade”… It’s February 6th, 2020!
Two British soldiers on the front line (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) are given an urgent, immediate, mission to deliver updated instructions to a general, ordered to cross occupied territory to do so before soldiers are sent into a trap.
I’m not a fan of war films. I rarely choose to put myself through seeing the horrors of war depicted, things that in reality leave many mentally scarred for life. To me it’s almost the opposite of watching a film for entertainment, though these are often stories worth telling, they shouldn’t be ‘entertaining’. Every now and again a war film is so lauded that I’m interested enough to watch it, sometimes even at the cinema, and this turned out to be a worthwhile viewing experience.
This is exceptionally well made, Sam Mendes has been an accomplished director from the start of his film career, taking skills honed in the theatre but then showing an aptitude with all the possibilities that film adds. Here he makes use of clever edits to give the effect that it’s one continuous shot, a challenge that I realised may be a little less daunting for someone like Sam Mendes when taking into consideration his theatrical background. In effect, the film can be seen as two continuous scenes with a brief intermission, classic theatre.
This faux single-shot effect is nothing new, the classic example is Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ and a few films have used this in recent years, some to high-praise such as Best Picture Oscar winner ‘Birdman’. As used in this film it’s not a gimmick in any way, it’s a brilliant choice when paired with the urgency and real-time development of the inciting incident the film’s storyline is built around. Not overlong, with a running time of just under two hours the seamless editing sustains the momentum which makes the film feel shorter than it is and not a moment is wasted.
The storyline is relatively simple, there’s a clear objective, just two key characters to develop as they progress in their mission, and the emotional investment is elevated as there are personal stakes for one of the soldiers, Blake. At time’s he’s overwhelmed by the need to protect his brother from being sent into certain death, and actor Dean-Charles Chapman conveys this very well. The casting serves to highlight one of the facts about the war, that some particularly young and inexperienced men went to fight. Chapman looks young, quite fresh-faced, and the conversation between him and his comrade highlights that he’s still new to the war, enthusiastic, optimistic, and in this task unwaveringly determined.
Contrasting starkly with that is the other soldier, Schofield, played brilliantly by George MacKay, whose face is near-expressionless, giving the impression of a man who is haunted. We learn he’s previously been awarded a medal for bravery which tells us he’s more experienced and far more cautious, pessimistic, at times even angry. MacKay is brilliant, an actor who has had a varied career of interesting roles, though he’s been strangely absent from award nominations for this. I think it’s because his key role is often overshadowed by the spectre of war that looms larger than any performance, an ever-present character that does more to shape the narrative than his character could ever do in his efforts against it.
Supporting roles, though brief, stand out. The film features what Sam Mendes has called the best group of ‘day players’, a handful of cameos from some of the most instantly recognisable British actors. The one I will mention, not wishing to spoil the others, is Andrew Scott, whose brief appearance stands out in so many ways that you could almost have understood a ‘Supporting Actor’ nomination.
Grabbing attention frequently is the beautiful cinematography, which must have been all the more difficult with the challenge of achieving that one-shot effect. Roger Deakins spent decades waiting for an academy award, maybe he’ll get his second far sooner than expected. What makes the film even more impressive is when you add in the visual effects elements that have been seamlessly added. The trifecta of cinematography, seamless edits, and extensive VFX work, are all brought together so perfectly it’s impossible to consider just one element alone without it being made all the more impressive by the others.
Thomas Newman’s score is also prominent and used to heighten tensions and maintain a sense of momentum. I found it a little too leading in places, dominating certain scenes that would’ve likely been tense or emotional enough without the score forcing the point. That’s not to say it isn’t a good score, it is, but it at times lacks the subtlety that other elements of the film excel in.
Do I want to watch it again? I’m not in a hurry to do so, no. Am I glad I took the opportunity to see it at the cinema now? Definitely, that’s where it could have the full intended impact. This is a film that’ll suffer from being screened on TV, especially if it’s on a network that cuts films up with advertising breaks. The detailed wide shots, hidden cuts and relentless pace when seen in a cinema environment are enough to carry a film that otherwise is unusually light on story and character. It doesn’t hang on big names giving big performances, nor are there countless twists or emotional setpieces, it’s all kept to a functional minimum, enough to make it interesting but never so much that it loses the sense of credibility. It’s accomplished filmmaking for all the obvious reasons, and even more so for those that go deliberately unnoticed.
Is it the greatest war film of the decade? If it’s being counted as being from the end of the last decade, probably not, there are others that I think are better. Is it the greatest war film of the first thirty-seven days of this decade? Probably.
Nominated for ten Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Original Screenplay, this has good chances of continuing its winning streak seen at almost every other Awards ceremony this season including the seven it won at the BAFTAs last weekend. Though there’s a growing sense that it could run out of steam going into the end straight, seemingly neck-to-neck with other contenders in many key categories. I am confident predicting it won’t get ‘Original Screenplay’, ‘Makeup’ nor ‘Score’, but the others are too close to call with much certainty.