Surviving Barstool | Ep. 2 Premieres Tuesday 11/28 At 8PM ETWATCH EP. 1 NOW

A Spoiler Free Review of '1917'

When I told a buddy of mine I was going to see "1917," he told me I ought to start a podcast called "Movies I Like That My Dad Would've Watched." And his point is well taken. I'll watch a wide variety of movies, but tend to gravitate toward the military history genre. It probably comes from being the son of a guy who served on an aircraft carrier in the war and marrying someone whose dad fought under Patton. If I recall it correctly, when the Irish Rose bought me the VHS of "Patton," that was the thing that proved she was wife material. 27 years later, I think I made the right call, since she came with me and No. 2 Son to see "1917." And not only did we all love it, No. 1 Son (the former Marine who's now in school) saw it and called it one of the best movies he's seen in years. 

The thing of it is, I don't remember ever watching a World War I film until maybe Stephen Spielberg's "War Horse" a couple years ago. There are a couple of reasons that war in particular hasn't produced a ton of memorable movies. The first is the geopolitics of it. Unlike it's more famous sequel, WWI didn't have clearly drawn lines of Pure Good vs. Incarnate Evil. There were exceptions, but for the most part it was monarchies fighting against other monarchies. In an enlightened, scientific and technological age, the world was still largely ruled by people who got the job due to their bloodlines. Even the words "Kaiser" and "Czar" are direct derivations of "Caesar." In a way it was almost inevitable that the Old World had to go up in flames. Unfortunately the ashes in the fire were the lives of working class people who rarely ever had a dog in the fight. That's not to say there weren't inconceivable degrees of courage and heroism on all sides. Just that it's harder to tell a great story when the big villain is some Archduke from Austria-Hungary as opposed to the Nazi Party or Imperial Japan. 

Second, is the nature of how World War I was fought. I might not have watched a lot of movies, but I have seen the documentaries, listened to all of Dan Carlin's like 21-hour "Hardcore History" podcast series on the topic and read up on it some. And basically it was all about inertia. Soldiers on both sides hunkered down in trenches behind miles of barbed wire for weeks at a time. Every few months an offensive would sacrifice tens of thousands of lives to push the front back a few hundred yards. Then a counter-offensive would kill tens of thousands more and return the lines to where they were. It's not exactly great raw material for visual storytelling like "Patton"'s race across Europe or the bridge battle at the end of "Saving Private Ryan." 

Which is where "1917" is such a brilliant piece of film making. As you can tell from the trailer, two Brits are given a mission to get to the front lines and deliver orders to call off an attack because 1,600 of their fellow soldiers are about to walk into a German trap. And one of the men picked for it has a brother in the outfit that will be slaughtered en masse if they don't deliver the message. Their mission involves almost constant motion - through the trenches, across No Man's Land, through abandoned enemy positions, farmlands, wastelands, bombed out villages - that propel the story forward (literally and figuratively) and give it a dynamism other WWI films can't deliver. 

The director is Sam Mendes, who's done "Skyfall," "Jarhead" and "Road to Perdition," among others. And he co-wrote it based on his own grandfather's stories of the war. And he filmed it in a style that makes it look like the entire movie is filmed in one continuous shot. Two actually, but I won't spoil how or why. I'd seen some reviews that called the style distracting and claim it takes away from the action, but I couldn't disagree more. This isn't some horseshit shaky-cam gimmick. It's a way to draw you into a story that you join almost in the middle, with no exposition. The mission is laid out in the first five minutes of the film and involves characters we know nothing about. But the camera work draws you into their adventure and you get to know them like you're the third one along for the journey. 

The movie is up for a bunch of Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. You won't find any acting nominations because aside from quick cameos from Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and the guy who played Robb Stark, there's not a familiar actor in the cast. Instead the story is the star. An epic journey of danger and valor, horrors and heroism. And an uncannily accurate portrayal of a critical period in world history that hasn't gotten nearly the respect it deserves on film. 

I agree with my kids, "1917" is one of the best movies I've seen in years. Certified Fresh on Thornton Tomatoes [TM].