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1917 vividly recreates WWI’s trench warfare. Is that enough to win Best Picture?

Our roundtable discusses the Oscar chances for Sam Mendes’s “one shot” war movie.

George MacKay crawls through trenches in 1917
Universal Pictures

Every year, between five and 10 movies compete for the OscarsBest Picture trophy. It’s the most prestigious award that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gives out every year, announced right at the end of the ceremony. And there aren’t any set rules about what constitutes a “best” picture. It’s the movie — for better or worse, depending on the year — that Hollywood designates as its standard bearer for the current moment.

And so, the film that wins Best Picture essentially represents the American movie industry’s view of its accomplishments in the present and its aspirations for the future.

Each year’s nominee slate roughly approximates the movies the industry thinks showcase its greatest achievements from the past 12 months. And one thing that’s definitely true about the nine Best Picture nominees from 2019 is that, in tone and theme, they’re all over the place.

The most-nominated film overall is also one of the year’s most successful commercially, and one of its most controversial. A beloved social thriller from Korea has reached the milestone of becoming that country’s first Best Picture and Best International Feature nominee. There are three historical dramas: one set during World War I, one that centers on a 1966 car race, and one that co-stars an imaginary Hitler. There’s a quietly funny drama about love and divorce and a revisionist history of Hollywood in the summer of 1969. The world’s arguably most influential living auteur made a gangster epic with eternity on its mind. And a critically acclaimed adaptation of a celebrated novel rounds out the group.

In the runup to the Oscars on February 9, the Vox staff is looking at each of the nine Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

Below, Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson, international security and defense staff writer Alex Ward, and senior correspondent Matt Yglesias discuss 1917, Sam Mendes’s “one-take” journey through the trenches of World War I.

Alissa: I have weird feelings about 1917, a movie I both admire and find moving, yet also find distracting for some of its filmmaking choices. But what I realized while watching it was that I admired it for applying innovative techniques to overcome the audience’s perception of what a “war film” is (like Christopher Nolan’s excellent Dunkirk did) — and, in so doing, felt like it was actively trying to deflate any Hollywood notions of the “glory” of war. (I’m not sure it’s successful in the technique it used — I’ll get to that later — but I admire the attempt.)

The other thing I realized is that I don’t really know a lot about World War I, probably because the movies have historically been so focused on two other wars: World War II and the Vietnam War. I think you’re both far more versed in that than I am. So as you were watching, what were your first impressions? And what did you come away thinking about?

Alex: The thing to know about World War I, without really getting into the history, is that it was a war of trench warfare. That led to long periods of waiting in muddy, cold, dark subterranean areas before rushes of attacks where troops would face machine guns and other dangerous weaponry. I thought 1917 captured both the dreary nature of life in the trenches and the unsettling danger of being outside of them. The camerawork made me feel like I was the third soldier, seeing every horror, fearing every sound. I was waiting for a war movie to make me feel this in a visceral way, and I thought 1917 nailed it.

Matt: Sam Mendes didn’t seem too interested in offering historical context to explain what was going on, but I happen to love World War I history (see Vox’s 40 Maps That Explain World War I) and I think the specific context gives a deeper understanding of some of the artistic choices at work here.

As you can see on this map of where the front lines stood in 1916, the German trenches had this kind of weird westward bulge in northern France:

The Story of the Great War

That was called the Noyon Salient. Right before the events of the movie, the Germans constructed a whole secondary series of defensive trenches behind the Salient known as the Hindenburg Line, after one of their top commanders. Then they executed a quiet strategic withdrawal called Operation Alberich, in which they fell back from the original front to the Hindenburg Line.

The basic idea was that the Hindenburg Line was straighter and they could defend it with fewer troops, which would free up extra men to go east to fight the Russians and knock them out of the war (this worked, leading to the Russian Revolution). The Germans deliberately destroyed everything of use in the Salient, and deported most of the able-bodied men to work in war production elsewhere while leaving women and the elderly behind. The German general Erich Ludendorff explained in his memoir, “on the one hand it was desirable not to make a present to the enemy of too much fresh strength in the form of recruits and laborers, and on the other we wanted to foist upon him as many mouths to feed as possible.”

That’s a pretty horrifying concept on Ludendorff’s part, and if you wanted to make a movie about World War I that painted the Germans as the “bad guys,” it would in many ways be a smart thing to focus on.

But that’s really not the film Mendes delivered. Even though you see the landscape that was left devastated by German occupation and withdrawal, he’s clearly crafted a film in which war itself rather than the German Army is the villain. That’s very much in keeping with predominant literary interpretation of the war that dominated in the 1920s and ‘30s, which cast it as pointless bloodshed. By the same token, Mendes’s film reminded me over and over again of All Quiet on the Western Front which won Best Picture 90 years ago in 1930. All Quiet on the Western Front dwells on the alternating terror and boredom of trench life, opens with hungry soldiers looking for food, features a soldier expressing regret about having taken home leave, contains a failed effort to carry a wounded comrade to safety after an airplane-related injury, and very heavily emphasizes the notion of World War I as senseless slaughter whose causes nobody can even comprehend.

In that sense, 1917 is a kind of old-fashioned movie (Wonder Woman, which depicts World War I-era Germans as proto-Nazis, offers a slightly more contemporary treatment, though the historiography is now trending back in Mendes’s direction). And that is part of what I liked about the tricky camerawork. I know a lot of professional film critics found it to be showy or even distracting, but I thought it was engrossing. Rewatching some key scenes from All Quiet On the Western Front to prep for this roundtable, what I found distracting was the extent to which a director working before the dawn of modern camera technology or special effects budgets had to rely on repeated quick cuts and close-up inserts to try to convey battle action. Letting the camera float continuously is a huge stylistic break from the past, but in some ways a more intuitive presentation — after all, we all experience life as kind of a one shot take.

Alissa: I’m glad you brought up All Quiet on the Western Front, Matt, as well as the way Hollywood has treated World War I. It seems like part of the challenge of depicting war on screen is that it gives filmmakers a few different modes to work in. There’s the epic sweep of history and strategy and map-making, and there’s the things-blow-up “adventure” of it all, and then there’s the slogging human toll. And the latter is what 1917 does best, I think. (That final scene with Richard Madden breaking down really got me.) Which makes sense, since Mendes wrote the film from his recollections of his grandfather’s stories.

I want to spend a little more time on the one-shot concept, because I am one of the critics who found it unnecessarily showy. To me, it felt more like an act of bravado than something that really worked in the film. Part of my problem with it was that Mendes didn’t seem able to pick a point of view. Sometimes I did feel like a third soldier, as you said, Alex. Other times the camera was swooping over soldiers as they ran and dodged, like the eye of God (or at least a stray hawk). And while the effect is supposed to mimic experiencing the events in “real time,” it obviously does not do that; a two-hour movie cannot chronicle the events of a day in “real time.” Movie magic!

The best part, however, was how the tracking camera worked in the trenches — and as you both have said, trench warfare was what World War I really was. I’m wondering if you can spin that out a little further — what did that mean for the everyday reality of the soldiers? How was it different from World War II?

Alex: Well, being in the trenches meant that you spent most of your day in the mud and darkness. Life was pretty concentrated to the dugouts, and if you wanted to advance, it would be out in the open where you were very vulnerable. At least for me, watching the movie made me think, “Man, those trenches sure looked cozy” as the two soldiers wandered the battlefield.

Trenches were still used in World War II, so it’s not like trench warfare disappeared entirely. But technology was more advanced in that war: bombs were stronger, planes were faster, guns were deadlier. Think of it this way: In World War I a lot supplies, weapons, and people were transported by horses. In World War II, transport was much more mechanical and armored.

So, when we think of 1917, the word that sticks out to me is “vulnerable.” In the trenches, you’re vulnerable to disease, boredom, and a general unease. Out in the open, you’re obviously very vulnerable to attack. Even during the scene in the truck where they got stuck in the mud, I was half expecting an ambush. The one-shot method made me feel vulnerable as I watched — like I was always in danger — so I was always on edge.

Matt: The trenches really defined World War I on the battlefield because on the one hand you had machine guns but no tanks (until the very end of the war), so to a first approximation, the dug-in on the defensive always won. World War II was much more defined by mobile forces, air power, amphibious assaults and other things that, while terrifying, didn’t have the particular horror of being stuck in a hole surrounded by rats.

What’s telling is that even though trenches defined World War I, nobody can bring themselves to make a whole movie about it! In Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981) the trenches only come in at the end, and for most of the movie you’re moving around. Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1937) is built around a very idiosyncratic situation with pilots and POWs. Both are great movies, but they’re focused on edge cases so as to not just be two hours in a trench. In 1917 it’s the opposite, and the quotidian horror of trench warfare is quickly replaced by a more “exciting” mission to No Man’s Land. It would be interesting to see someone try to pull off an all-trench story.

Alex: I would watch a one-shot all-trench story.

Matt: It would also be interesting to see a movie about the American role in World War I! Mendes slightly tweaks the timeline of the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line to have the action take place on April 6, which is the exact day the US declares war on Germany. This detail then turns out to be totally irrelevant. That has to be a deliberate choice, but it also doesn’t make any sense to me — it’s an Easter egg for World War I nerds, but we are also the only people who’d be annoyed by shifting the German withdrawal from March to April.

Alex: Sometimes I think war movies become history porn and don’t focus enough on the actual toils of the service member. I appreciate that 1917 is all about the young soldiers and the perils they faced in every second. It may be somewhat ahistorical, but it felt more authentic — if that’s a thing — than any war movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Matt: Along the same lines, I thought 1917 did an excellent job of capturing something that I think all the scholarship about war backs up: Soldiers do courageous things primarily out of a sense of obligation to one another on a human level, rather than for political or strategic causes that are generally very remote from the actual wartime experience.

Alissa: I think the conclusion we’re arriving at is that you both really liked 1917 because it brings war down to human scale, not by showing its effects on civilians, but by showing its effects on the soldiers themselves. If you were trying to think of other ways to drive that point home — and listing the reasons is so important — what would they be?

Matt: That’s a great question. I do think one of the big things you lose with the fake “real time” structure of 1917 is any ability to really explore aftermath and changes in home life. There was a lot of great literature in the 1920s about the postwar experiences of soldiers who’d come back home — often physically wounded but also psychologically damaged, with what we’d call post-traumatic stress disorder today. You see a hint of this in Andrew Scott’s portrayal of an officer who seems to have lost it as a result of prolonged command on the front lines, but it makes you curious — what’s he going to do after the war?

The nature of World War I was that soldiers tended to experience some fairly similar trench conditions regardless of nationality, but to the best of my understanding, the actual responses to the situation were incredibly varied both psychologically and politically. There’s an incredible immediacy to 1917’s tight focus on two particular soldiers over a very limited span of time, but it does really narrow your perspective of what the war really meant.

Alex: I think most movies have failed at this. We see clumsy glimpses of the long-term effects of war in The Hurt Locker and in certain parts of American Sniper. It’s of course always worth exploring what happens in war, but we really need good movies about what happens after. Otherwise, our sense of the “glory” of war is at best incomplete.

What I like about 1917, and especially the Andrew Scott section, is we started to get a little sense of how the war would continue to affect him, as Matt alluded to. I would love to know more, always remembering that these are ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing before they go back to being ordinary. There’s beauty and pain in that, and I want to see more.

Alissa: I have my quibbles with 1917, and there are a number of other films I’d rather see win Best Picture, though I won’t be surprised (or particularly mad) if 1917 takes home the trophy. It seems in some ways inevitable after the film’s Golden Globes win. Do you think it deserves the title?

Matt: I liked this movie a lot and it winning would make film critics angry, so I support that outcome.

Alex: I think it’s the most stunning film I saw last year, so I’d be fine if it won. It wasn’t necessarily the best acted, but it was the best shot — in my mind — and it was surely the film that will stick with me longest after this awards cycle. I can’t recommend it enough.

Alissa: One last question: Is there another book or movie or TV series or whatever that you might recommend to people whose interest was peaked by 1917?

Matt: This is basically the opposite of a tightly focused narrative on the experiences of individual soldiers, but I am on a mission in life to get more people to read Christopher Clark’s revisionist account of the origins of World War I, The Sleepwalkers, so I will recommend it here, too. But I’ll also say that while the film version of All Quiet on the Western Front is very obviously dated, the novel that it’s based on holds up really well and is close in spirit to 1917.

Alex: I second The Sleepwalkers, because it is very good. Also, despite its many flaws, I’d recommend seeing Jarhead, because it’s the study of something that doesn’t get covered often in war: boredom. There are of course other elements to the film, but I appreciate a war movie taking the time to reflect on what the everyday doldrums of being at war looks like, and what it can do to the service member who desperately wants to get in the fight.

I’d also suggest that people read Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell or Dispatches by Michael Herr. Both are deeply human, powerful stories about the complexities and high stakes of war.

Read the Vox staff’s thoughts on all nine of the 2020 Best Picture nominees:

1917 | Ford v Ferrari | The Irishman | Jojo Rabbit | Joker | Little Women | Marriage Story | Once Upon a Time in Hollywood | Parasite