It felt like someone was standing directly on my chest cavity. And occasionally stomping on my heart.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I managed to see 4 or 5 movies in a theater last year, and while Knives Out and The Lion King both wowed me, only 1 of my big-screen experiences felt transcendent. It gave me that elusive, priceless sense of watching pure cinema and achieving pure catharsis. That movie, directed by Sam Mendes, was 1917.
Of the 6 Sam Mendes films I have seen over the last two decades, I loved 3, liked 1, didn’t care for 1, and initially loved but gradually — the older I got — came to loathe the 6th. I never caught up with his 2 Bond flicks. Feel free to do the math and venture a guess as to which 2 of his films didn’t resonate with me.
But in the interest of keeping this positive, in addition to 1917, I was also floored by Revolutionary Road and Away We Go, two movies about married life that couldn’t have possibly been more different. Away We Go was seminal for me while my now-wife and I were dating, and 6 viewings later is still a movie that feels as close to my heart (as well as the darker end of my funny bone) as any other movie on earth. Revolutionary Road, on the other hand, put me through a nearly unbearable wringer. A meat grinder of emotion.
Which is apparently something Sam Mendes is quite good at constructing.
1917 is a film for people who adored Saving Private Ryan but wished it portrayed the horrors of war in even more excruciating detail, and with an even greyer color palette. Both movies are about soldiers following orders to get from point A to point B in order to preserve the life of a brother (among others). And both are animated by a hyper-earnest sense of honor, which makes 1917 a breath of fresh air in a modern era where earnestness is trampled upon and honor sometimes feel like a relic.
But fresh air notwithstanding, watching the horrors of 1917 unfold makes the act of breathing difficult. The fact that it was filmed to look like one unbroken, 2-hour-long tracking shot amplifies that claustrophobic effect. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as immersed in a sense of heartbreaking dread while sitting in a movie theater.
And not the kind of dread that you experience watching a twisted horror movie. But the kind that’s heightened by the knowledge that all of these things happened. All of these ordinary men left their ordinary wives, and their ordinary children, and their ordinary lives, and were asked to do extraordinary things — terrifying, barbaric, demoralizing, and borderline impossible things.
That is the weight that rested like a boulder on my chest as I watched 1917 and strained to breathe. I had to will myself not to break down sobbing in the midst of 100 complete strangers. I kept shifting in my seat to create space in my lungs for what little breath I could muster up.
There are a hundred things I could say about 1917. Superlatives and gushing hyperbole. But all I really want to say is:
It crushed me.