Oscars: War Epic '1917' Crashes the Race

Going into this weekend, there was only one Oscar contender not yet seen by LA-based press: Sam Mendes' 1917.

That changed when Universal hosted a series of private screenings for press and voters in New York on Saturday and L.A. on Sunday, with filmmakers in tow, and was received so warmly that even these grizzled and fatigued moviegoers applauded when its end credits began to roll.

Filmed to appear as a single shot through the frontlines of World War I, 1917 is an epic drama told through the experiences of two British Army grunts (little known, for now, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) who are recruited to deliver an urgent message to comrades on the other side of No Man's Land, where Germans have reportedly abandoned their trenches, risking their own lives to try to save the lives of others.

That description sounds not unlike the story at the center of Steven Spielberg's 1998 World War II epic Saving Private Ryan, and numerous early reactions have asserted that 1917 is as great as any war film since Ryan. I don't disagree — though I regard Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk in the same league — and would go as far as to say that it is the best World War I film since Lewis Milestone's 1930 masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front, which won the best picture Oscar.

Coming 20 years after Mendes' directorial debut American Beauty, which won Oscars for best picture and best director, 1917 is the first feature film written by either of its two screenwriters, Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and was partially inspired by Mendes' own grandfather, a Great War message carrier, to whom the film is dedicated. The story is told economically, without unnecessary exposition and with minimal dialogue, which allows the viewer to become totally immersed in its stunningly realistic and powerful visuals. Indeed, it is a remarkable craft and technical achievement, not least because of its appearance of one continuous take, even if multiple takes have been invisibly stitched together.

In recognition of this landmark achievement, legendary lenser Roger Deakins becomes a frontrunner in the cinematography race and will most likely walk away with a second best cinematography Oscar in three years, after having to wait decades for his first (for 2017's Blade Runner: 2049). There is a strong possibility that production designer Dennis Gassner will also be picking up a second statuette, 28 years after winning his first (for 1991's Bugsy), having presided over the creation of more than a mile of trenches, a massive No Man's Land and numerous burnt-out structures. The film's sound editing and sound mixing are sure to be nominated, and could also become frontrunners in those categories.

And composer Thomas Newman, a member of Hollywood's most famous music family, is likely to receive his 15th Oscar nomination for best original score for his soaring contribution to the film, and it is quite possible that he may finally win.

In an insanely crowded year stacked with A-listers in the best actor and best supporting actor races, MacKay and Chapman — who are likely to be pushed in the former and latter races, respectively — may be overshadowed by more famous faces. But, regardless, they should take heart in knowing that their work will be largely responsible for the best picture and best director nominations that are surely coming the way of 1917.