After wowing early audiences with its technical mastery and a career-making performance from George MacKay, Sam Mendes’ one-shot-illusion, World War I drama entered the awards season fray a touch on the late side. Hitting theaters just last week, the film was thrust into a crowded field that included films like “The Irishman,” “Joker,” and “Marriage Story,” which already had weeks (and even months) of screening and stumping time under their belts.
No matter, however, because Mendes’ latest has emerged victorious in arguably the Golden Globes’ most vaunted category: Best Motion Picture, Drama. The film beat out a trio of Netflix entries for the big win, including Martin Scorsese’s latest mob epic “The Irishman,” Noah Baumbach’s two-hander divorce drama “Marriage Story,” and the well-regarded “The Two Popes.” The film’s win also dashed the hopes of Todd Phillips’ super-villain drama “Joker,” which has continued to pick up steam in the awards conversation since it dominated Venice back in September.
At this year’s ceremony, filmmaker Mendes won Best Director, an honor he previously won in 2000 with his “American Beauty” (he was also nominated for his work on “Revolutionary Road” in 2009, ultimately losing to Danny Boyle for his “Slumdog Millionaire”). “1917” was also nominated for Best Original Score, thanks to the contributions of Hollywood mainstay Thomas Newman.
In IndieWire’s early review of the film, the “single-shot” conceit of “1917” was hailed as being essential to its power. This writer wrote, “Designed to approximate a one-shot odyssey through the depravity and utter terror of World War I, Mendes’ latest is built on a wild gamble of a storytelling technique, as it follows Blake and Schofield during the entirety of their insane mission. And while the ‘single-take’ conceit is hardly a new one — films as very different as ‘Birdman’ and ‘Rope’ have used it over the years, and those are just the most well-known examples — Mendes’ ‘1917’ harnesses it into something fresh; not just a mechanism to build tension, it immerses viewers in the complete unpredictability of life during wartime.”
While the film didn’t arrive in theaters until the December holiday week, early critics’ screenings proved to be just the ticket to raising its visibility. Pre-Thanksgiving screenings were met with a variety of sterling reactions, from comparisons to other war epics to admiration for its many technical achievements.
The single-take illusion serve the simple story (with all the technical wizardry required, “you don’t need bells and whistles in the script,” said co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns) as we follow the immersive action through two hours of seven-to-10-minute unbroken sequences artfully knit together. The film does tuck in a handful of smart cuts, including a long blackout scene that pushes it from day to night, just when it’s needed most, but it mostly stands as a bold, single-take epic.
The actors rehearsed and blocked on a London stage with cardboard boxes. Once in France, the team precisely timed the pre-planned sequences — at which point, production designer Dennis Gassner designed and built on location to match, including miles of snaking trenches. For the camera operators (and lauded cinematographer Roger Deakins), it meant slipping in mud, getting shelled and battered, as they seamlessly transitioned from high-tech remote-controlled devices to special SteadiCam rigs as needed.
Mendes dedicates the film to his grandfather Alfred, who served in World War I and did not speak about it for 50 years, until he shared stories with his grandchildren. One was about a man carrying a message, which formed the germ of Mendes’ first screenplay (yes, really!). He wrote the film with Wilson-Cairns (“Penny Dreadful”) at the behest of his long-time CAA agent Beth Swofford, who told him after back-to-back Bond films “Skyfall” and “Spectre,” “get off your ass and write something yourself.”
The film’s technical merits are myriad, and IndieWire’s own Anne Thompson predicts a hail of Oscar nominations in the coming days. After an early screening, Thompson advised that the film “jumps to the head of a crowded field of Oscar contenders, and will land likely nominations for directing, cinematography, picture, score, sound mixing and editing, and production design.” With a Golden Globe win, there are likely even more accolades to come.
It should be stressed that the HFPA voters are not Academy members, which means there is no overlap between the voting bodies that decide the Golden Globe winners and the Oscar winners. While the film’s Best Picture win will provide a boost to its visibility as a serious Oscar contender, the movies’ larger Oscar chances will be defined by just how well “1917” scores at this year’s guild awards.
Check out the full list of Golden Globe winners right here.