Abe Beame may or may not put Sriracha on his popcorn.
It’s not appointment viewing or anything, but I happened to be at home cooking on Sunday night with the Golden Globes on in the background when something predictably infuriating happened. The Drunk Awards show was humming along on its standard frequency of bizarre, occasionally heart warming, and generally perplexing when the Best Director category was announced. 2019 was a historically horrible year for all life on Earth and probably not coincidentally a historically great year for movies. And so the category was stacked, a field including what is probably the three most important if not outright “best” directors of the last 30 years in Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Bong Joon Ho (Oh, also, uh, Todd Phillips). And then, Sam Mendes won and my stomach dropped.
As an avid consumer of film, I am a follower of these silly end of the year coronation ceremonies no one likes or agrees with, and like most people I practice a cinematic politics of resentment. I have an entire massive column I will be updating in the next few weeks in which I cite and rehash decades old grudges concerning who was the TRUE best supporting actress of 2006 and what animated foreign language film should’ve gotten nominated. As such, I am no stranger to the blood boiling anger that comes with the perennial, lazy prestige picture that comes from out of nowhere to steal shine from my favorite pet directors, actors, and their films from any given year. When Mendes strolled on stage and casually robbed three of my idols of the award they had so justly earned, I believed he was joining the annals of history with what appeared to be yet another generic article of PBS Daddy War Porn.
The lazy prestige Best Picture is a rich and storied tradition like no other. It always seems to come in years when my favorite and most exciting films are finally on the precipice of justifying these dumb ceremonies by giving the “right” film the award. Just last year, Green Book caused a small uproar when it won trading on a “Race is a construct and we’re all human at the end of the day” trope that was stale and condescending 50 years ago. Crash won employing the same magical bullshit. The completely disposable sci-fi period piece The Shape of Water beat Ladybird and Get Out in 2018. The most egregious recent instance was arguably The King’s Speech, a shitty film from the acclaimed director of Cats about a white man with the most privilege on Earth briefly overcoming his stutter, winning out over The Social Network, the movie of the decade that still has more to say about life online and IRL than anything that has followed its release in 2010.
So 1917, a film about the Most Boring World War (there aren’t even any Nazis!), directed by the guy who made another lazy prestige Best Picture winner, a Bond movie that was essentially Dark Knight karaoke, and the 100 minute Belle & Sebastian song Away We Go had certainly done it again, robbed brilliance and greatness of its well deserved glory and paved the way to yet another statue my BidenHive movie aunt will passionately defend at Passover in a few months. As I picked at my risotto, trembling with righteous indignation, the only logical conclusion was I had to go see this stupid fucking movie so I could condemn it with authority.
After work, I ran to Union Square for a Monday night showing. As yet another ridiculous, designed-in-a-lab-to-piss-me-off-and-underscore-how-out-of-touch-the-Hollywood-Foreign- Press-truly-is twist, 1917 is currently only playing in two theaters in New York City, both in Manhattan. From what I understand, it’s only currently showing in 11 theaters nationwide, though I’m sure that number has either already risen dramatically or is about to this week. The Golden Globes coronation was already doing its work. I had gotten my ticket earlier in the day, but by the time I got there the show was sold out. I wouldn’t even do the theater the courtesy of spending on concessions, this was an all business visit. Watch the film, log my displeasure, get home at a reasonable hour. And then the movie started.
There’s something that happens to me when walking out of the glow of a really good movie I don’t expect to like, where I fear recency bias. My own critical apparatus may be compromised because as an older person in this media economy of noise and anticipation and leaks and spoilers, I’m surprised so infrequently these days that when I am, I experience a thrill that I fear may cloud my judgement. So feel free to take this with a grain of salt, but as the title of this piece suggests, I thought 1917 was an unbelievable film. It wasn’t just great, it’s a movie that just might expand your idea of what a movie is and what it can be.
Walking in, basically all I knew was it employed the single shot gimmick famously used by Hitchcock in Rope and Inniratu in Birdman (among others?). I don’t really remember Rope from a single viewing in my early 20s and liked the performances in Birdman better than the film itself, but what I’ll say is Mendes has done something akin to what Future did with Autotune. He took a misunderstood and underutilized effect and potentially created an entire genre. (I’m only including these clips as a reference, if you think there’s a chance you want to go see this movie without additional enticement I’d actually recommend not clicking but either way THIS MUST BE SEEN IN A THEATER)
1917 gamifies film. There have been scores of horrible films adapted from video game IP, but this is perhaps the only film I’ve ever seen that puts you in a single perspective from start to finish and makes you feel the visceral experience of avoiding sniper fire, or escaping a collapsing mine or dodging a crashing plane or traversing a trench packed with soldiers immediately before an assault, and it’s an adrenalized experience that feels like a character you’re unconsciously controlling with a remote. It explains the confusion of war. You feel the terror and uncertainty of approaching a soldier in uniform in the dark, unsure if he’s an ally or enemy combatant, how quickly and fatally a calm situation can turn if you let your guard down for a second, how to read the interaction of a dog fight between three planes which are little more than specks in the distance.
You can compare it to Saving Private Ryan or Dunkirk, and those are valid comparisons, but 1917 is brilliant because it strips away a lot of the artifice of film. There’s very little narrative, almost no character development (the film nearly occurs in real time), very little in the way of preaching or theme hammering, the secret sauce is its purity of intent and simplicity of purpose. There are almost no ancillary characters or really anyone to get to know. It’s Private Ryan’s Normandy assault stretched over an entire film. But it’s more than just a two hour ride, it’s also a great, at times affecting movie. Despite the lack of a drawn out backstory, you get to know Lance Cpl. Schofield.
He’s not a great soldier, he’s not some heroic pacifist. He’s just a decent person thrust into a surreal hellscape doing his best to accomplish one simple task and survive.
Mendes also has great command of his set pieces. The rolling hills and wide shot landscapes of Northern France provide a background of nearly paralyzing beauty and tranquility we’re constantly taken out of by the random and shocking violence of the conflict. The mud strewn open graveyards of spent battlegrounds and burning cities punctuate the ugliness and all consuming nightmare inescapability of Schofield’s mission. The actors who populate the film are fine, the babyfaced George Mackay has the whole film hinging on him and delivers several moments that go beyond the beats in a paint by numbers war film, but traditional acting is largely beyond the point. This is athletic, muscular filmmaking on the highest possible level.
In a few weeks Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood or The Irishman or Marriage Story or Parasite may win the Oscar for Best Picture and one of their great directors may win for Best Director, and if they do, I’ll be thrilled. They were, and still probably are the four “best movies” I’ve seen this year. They are timely, they gave me insight into capitalism, or American history, or American life, or my own life. They were filled with conventionally great performances, actors expertly delivering brilliant dialogue that made me laugh, cry and think. But for once, if 1917 wins, I will not be angry or resentful, I will totally get it, because it just may end up being the most important, paradigm shifting and satisfying of the bunch, as a pure entertainment. So of course, inevitably, go to the nearest bookie and put all your money on Joker.