Movie review: 1917 (Mendes)

My first film at the new Madison Theatre

The movie 1917 was the first film my wife and I saw at the newly refurbished Madison Theatre. It’s only three blocks from our house. We walked there on a rainy Saturday afternoon in January.

When we entered into the room, there were some animated short films already running. One was the 2015 offering Ear Fear. They were followed by previews of three movies including The Turning, which was playing on another of the Madison’s four screens.

In April 1917, two British soldiers – Dean-Charles Chapman as Blake and George MacKay as Schofield – are “sent to deliver an urgent message to an isolated regiment. If the message is not received in time the regiment will walk into a trap and be massacred.” Blake has a brother at that imperiled regiment.

As one spoiler-laced review notes, “When done well, [the long take] immerses the audience in the scene. If the action is literally unfolding all around the camera, it’s easy to convince viewers that they, too, are in the thick of it. It’s a gimmick, to be sure, but Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins make it work for 1917.”

I totally agree with that assessment. It may have the best chance of the nine films nominated for Best Picture to tale home the Oscar. Yet about 10% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave it a thumbs down.

Sentimentality?

What’s the general complaint? Often that the film is style over substance. Richard Brody’s review in the New Yorker is informative.

“The character’s death would have been as wrenching for viewers if the soldier’s appearance remained unaltered and he merely fell limp. Instead, the director, Sam Mendes, chose to render the moment picturesque—to adorn it with an anecdotal detail of the sort that might have cropped up in a war story, a tale told at years’ remove…”

I suppose there is something to this criticism. It’s interesting that Menes gives credit to his grandfather for telling these stories. Yet it is the sentimentality that makes the penultimate scene feel so touching.

“‘1917’ is a film of patriotic bombast and heroic duty, The script is filled with melodramatic coincidences that grossly trivialize the life-and-death action by reducing it to sentiment.” There are coincidences, to be sure. They did not take away from our appreciation of the film. But 1917, in the end, was less gruesome than those horror film trailers.

The Madison Theatre has table service . I was wary that this would be distracting, but it was not, in large part because the seats and tables alternate.

Even the waitstaff aiding people to our right was not that distracting. It’s hardly as bad as the chuckleheads talking in front of us when we saw Richard Jewell at the Spectrum about a month earlier.