In a mad scramble to see all of the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars next Sunday (despite the fact that I continue to pretend every single year that I couldn’t care less about the ceremony), I finally managed to see Sam Mendes’s 1917 earlier today. I’ve actually been really looking forward to seeing it, being a huge fan of his earlier films (especially Road to Perdition), but just haven’t had the time since its release nearly a month ago. And after all this time, reading reviews and reactions, plus all of the awards that it has since been nominated for, I had begun to worry that maybe I was hyping it up a bit too much, which tends to happen pretty often for me. Still, I went in, my expectations dangerously high, and prepared for what I hoped to be, at the very least, a good time at the movies.
Luckily, it was pretty much everything that everyone says it is: A masterful, tense, gorgeously-shot trip through the hellish fields and trenches of WWI Europe. It’s one of the most gripping, nail-bitingly suspenseful non-horror films I’ve ever experienced in a theater. And this is, by the way, a film meant to be viewed in a theater. The cinematography (done by absolute living-legend Roger Deakins), coupled with frighteningly good sound-mixing and scoring, deserves to be viewed in the biggest, loudest medium possible. I’m talking IMAX here, people. It’s worth it. It’s beautiful, it’s haunting, it’ll make you jump out of your seat and cover your eyes. In short, I absolutely loved it.
And at this point, everything that’s great about 1917 has pretty much been talked about ad nauseam. The cinematography, the acting, the score, all of it’s been blogged about to death by dozens of sites and publications. Hell, if you’re as inclined as I am to keep up with the cinematic world, probably sick of hearing about it. And honestly, all this attention is well deserved. I walked out of 1917 beyond satisfied with my decision to see this over Guy Ritchie’s latest crime/drama/comedy/British-slang-exhibition The Gentlemen. BUT, and I say this with extreme trepidation, there is one thing about this movie that bugged me. One teeny, tiny, insignificant detail that, no matter how hard I tried to ignore, kept taking me out of the film. It’s a stupid, pedantic complaint that has absolutely no bearing on the quality of the film AT ALL, but you’ve already read this far down, so you’re going to hear me rant about it anyway.
Mendes has previously discussed his choice to cast relatively unknown actors in the film’s two lead roles. His logic is, rightfully, that it allows the audience to grasp the sheer insignificance that these two characters feel in a sea of thousands of other disposable soldiers, which contributes to the film’s bleak, sometimes hopeless tone. Which, to his credit, absolutely works as intended. Hell, I didn’t even realize until I was at home on IMDB that one of the two soldiers is Tommen Baratheon, all grown up. I was that gripped with the story that I didn’t even recognize him. But (and again, I realize that this is probably an issue that literally no one else is bothered by), that logic also creates what I found to be the only annoying thing in this film.
I’m totally onboard with using unknowns for a film like this, for the exact reasons that Mendes gives. It allows you to connect with the characters on fundamental level, without being bogged down by their past performances or real-life exploits and personalities. That being said, I wish he had applied that philosophy to everyone else in the film as well. 1917 sort of plays out like a fetch quest in a video game. That is, the characters are given a simple task, get from point A to point B, and meet-up with persons X and Y on the way. That’s all well and good, and works in the film’s favor, allowing the audience to, again, focus on the characters rather than a needlessly complicated plot. The wrinkle for me in this simple structure is that all the important characters in this film outside of its two leads are HUGE stars, which feels incredibly jarring.
At first I was able to shake it off. The general that gives the two protagonists their orders is played by Colin Firth, who at this point is obviously pretty recognizable to most people. But they do a good job of soldier-ing him up, with a posh mustache and haircut, and he plays the role with enough gravitas that it doesn’t break the experience. It also helps that his role, like most in this film, is fairly small, only appearing onscreen for maybe a minute or two. In every subsequent character introduction though, it gets much, much worse.
The second bigwig that our primary protagonist encounters is only heard by his voice at first, and even then, he’s instantly identifiable: It’s Mark Strong, in a rare non-villainous role. Unlike with Firth’s character, the film doesn’t really try to gussy him up. It’s just Mark Strong, wearing a soldier’s uniform, dispensing token words of wisdom for a few minutes before disappearing. Again, this isn’t exactly immersion-breaking or anything. It just took me out of the film for a second, which was just long enough to interrupt the flow of the film for me. (I should also mention that, sometime before meeting Mark Strong’s character, our protagonists also happen to stumble upon Andrew Scott, aka Sherlock’s Moriarty, but I’m willing to let that one slide because it’s delightful).
While both of these cameos (I guess you can call them?) are slightly jarring, they’re NOTHING compared to the character we’re finally introduced to in the climax. After an incredibly dangerous, harrowing, and exhausting journey, our protagonist finally reaches the frontlines in the nick of time, ready to hand-deliver orders to a Colonel McKenzie, and cause a tactical retreat. It’s a hugely emotional moment, the payoff to the entire film. People have died in the mission to meet this one man, and even more lives hang in the balance, ultimately living or dying based on his response to the orders. It’s the moment of maximum investment for the audience. Our tired, shell-shocked young solider reaches the dugout where the officers are housed, rounds a corner, and is immediately face-to-face with Benedict-freaking-Cumberbatch. I was IMMEDIATELY taken out of the moment the second he was onscreen.
I get that Cumberbatch is a great actor, and to be fair, he plays his role well. He’s world-weary and jaded, clearly exhausted both emotionally and physically by the horrors he’s seen, and yet commands an air of importance and power which makes the audience almost fear him. But again, it’s still Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s arguably one of the most famous, pop-culture entrenched human beings alive today. Why, in a film so committed to anonymity and insignificance, would it then veer sharply into the arena of stardom? The role could have literally been played by anyone, and still carried the same weight. But no, the film uses a household name instead, which just seems cartoonishly out of place to me. And, as a final intrusion to the flow of the film, the cherry on top as it were, we get to meet the brother of a fallen soldier in the film’s final moments, and it’s Richard Madden, aka Rob Stark. It’s not nearly as egregious as Cumberbatch’s appearance, but for anyone who’s seen Game of Thrones (so, everyone, really), it’s an “Oh man, where do I know him from?” moment that ruins the emotional impact of the scene.
I know this sounds incredibly minor, and it really is. It doesn’t distract from the quality of the film in any way. And I realize, of course, that well-known actors are in literally every mainstream film. I just find that the usage of such big(ish) names alongside such deliberately unknown actors to be an incredibly jarring contrast, especially if you’re a pop-culture nerd like me, and can recognize pretty much anyone from British television. I suppose, if I were to put on my Pretentious Film Scholar Hat for a second, that maybe this contrast is deliberate? Maybe it’s meant to symbolize that, in war, the officers and generals in positions of power during wartime are ultimately selected by history to be the figures to remember, while the grunts and foot-soldiers who do the actual fighting are forgotten, condensed into one solid mass, and deemed disposable. Perhaps it’s a commentary and criticism on the self-importance felt by those in authority, their narcissistic tendency to see themselves as the heroes, and the sheer apathy given to their underlings?
Or maybe Sam Mendes just wanted to give small roles to some of his famous actor friends. We may never know. Either way, it’s a minor blemish in an otherwise fantastic film. Go see it, if you haven’t already. Just try to ignore the famous people (which you’ll probably have no trouble with, because you likely aren’t unhealthily neurotic).