This has been one of the most hyped award season movies of all 2019, maybe most hyped awards movie period. It’s trailers were tense, it focuses on one of the most under explored conflicts. The plot seemed straightforward and heartfelt and drop dead gorgeous.
The movie follows a pair of Lance Corporals from the British army as they make their way through enemies lines to stop an attack by a gung-ho colonel and save the lives of 1,600 men.
The film itself is an achievement. It manages to keep a tight ship as it maneuvers its way through multiple battlefields, trenches, ruins, and abandoned homes and straight to the goal. It keeps the focus on the two main characters as they make their journey. Every encounter is meaningful and help shows all the sides of the war through the eyes of these two men on a mission.
It also keeps it tight by being another single take film that rarely cuts or breaks away from the soldiers on their journey. It must have taken masterful planning, staging, rehearsing, retakes, and passion to craft multiple, elaborate treks through the trenches, no man’s land, a ruined town, and an enemy camp. They all feel well realized and brimming with signs that the team involved really cared about the project.
It is difficult not to point to every scene and beat as something stand out, because they l are. The trench walks are suitably labyrinthian and chaotic. The no man’s land walk it tense, morbid, filth. The ruins are ominous and foreboding. They also give way to a spectacular chase as our characters are outgunned and have to book it. The standout scene is the trailer shot of one of the characters booking it across a filed as carnage breaks out. By the end we fee as bruised, beat down, dirty, and tired as the soldiers do. It is exhausting in the best way.
All this moving and action is paced really well. It knows when everyone needs a nice sit and listen to someone sing, or just look at the beauty and tragedy the war brought to the land. It feels completely natural and well timed. It also knows how to pick you back up with a perfectly timed bullet or explosion to keep it up.
Through all this technical work the characters are neglected like many tech demo films are. Both corporals get enough depth to carry them. The other soldiers they meet along the way feel like real people even if they don’t get a lot of personal details. Even the few civilians get to spotlight their own trials and tribulations. It all feels real without needing to be gruesome, but reaches that line of being honest.
Where it does stumble, other than when the characters literally fall, is in the ending. We meet the colonel and it feels both triumphant and a let down. So does the ending. There is no way to end a film that takes place during one of the most confusing times in history, so it settles to stay on the characters. It works, but does feel a bit hollow.
At the end of the film (not a spoiler) a message plays that says the director, Sam Mendes, had a family member in the war and tell them stories. It is clear and delivers on imaging those harrowing tales, and telling the audience those stories. His ancestor should be proud he was able to tell this story so completely.
I wish I got to see it/it got a wide release in December so it could go on my ranked list and be a great film from that year.
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