Commentary: Why an Oscar win for '1917' wouldn't be any better than last year's 'Green Book' triumph

Commentary: Why an Oscar win for '1917' wouldn't be any better than last year's 'Green Book' triumph

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George MacKay in "1987".

George MacKay in "1987". (Imdb/TNS)

Please disregard this column, if anything besides the World War I drama "1917" wins the Producers Guild of America award Saturday.

If "1917" does win, there's a strong statistical likelihood that director Sam Mendes' flamboyantly austere paradox - a morally simple, technically complex depiction of two soldiers going through all kinds of hell, from trench warfare to temporary blindness to deadly river rapids - will win the 92nd Academy Award for best picture Feb. 9.

"If"s are cheap. So is the average Oscar prognosticator's crystal ball. Nonetheless here we are, and here I am, arguing why a win for "1917" wouldn't be surprising, but would be, for me, for vastly different reasons, as disappointing as last year's win for "Green Book."

First some numbers, then some thoughts. Since 1989, the PGA winner has gone on to take the top Oscar 21 out of 30 times. (In early 2014 "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" tied at the PGAs; "12 Years a Slave" won the Oscar a few weeks later.)

As many have noted, including Glenn Whipp of the Los Angeles Times, there's a striking link between best picture Oscar winners and the Oscar winners for best editing. Only 10 out of 91 movies, since the first Academy Awards presentation in 1929, managed to win best picture without a correlating win in the editing category.

Neither "1917" nor another strong contender for both the PGA and the Oscars this year, "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood," made the Oscar nominations cut for editing. As Whipp notes, the last time the top Oscar winner managed a win in similar circumstances was "Birdman" (2014).

Like "Birdman," "1917" rolls along in what has been staged, photographed and digitally stitched to resemble a single, two-hour line of unbroken action. To most Academy voters, that'd be reason enough not to favor it with an editing nomination.

The one-shot aesthetic confers a built-in sense of filmmaking risk, even if "1917" is made up of several separate long sequences. Mendes and the true hero of "1917," the master cinematographer Roger Deakins, deploy that strategy to tell the story of two British soldiers, played by George MacKay and Dean Charles Chapman, ordered across enemy lines in order to deliver a message in time for 1,600 fellow soldiers to avoid a trap set by German forces.

The film unfolds as a series of gamer-style episodes to be conquered, before moving on to the next level. The results play like a first-person war scenario, as if produced by Merchant Ivory. Strike that: It's less a first-person gaming experience than it is the experience of watching someone else at the controls: "Ready Player World War One."

The chief drawback of Mendes' visual approach, neatly allied with its stripped-down, functional screenplay, relates to what level of seriousness audiences are willing to buy in their big-screen war games. The horrors of war in "1917" are, at heart, exciting, in the exhilarating cinematic sense. They don't dare tell you much of the truth of what trench warfare and ungodly adversity under fire must've felt like.

Many disagree with that, and adore the picture. PGA voters, I suspect, admire, respect and will vote for it, partly because it's traditional in its setting and themes yet obviously, even flagrantly contemporary in its filmmaking and storytelling sensibility.

Nobody, including the people who made "Green Book," could make a reasonable argument against "1917" being a better-crafted experience than last year's PGA and Oscar winner. But movies about war have their own standards to uphold, and histories to honor. On a first viewing (I'll see it again before Oscar time), the characters felt perfunctory and marginalized in their own story. The human complexities of wartime are lost in the dazzle. Like "The Revenant," another long-take showcase from "Birdman" director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, "1917" settles for dramatically palatable sensory overload.

Producers, I suspect, will vote for "1917" in part because it reminds them of another recent and unfashionable success in the same genre: Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk." The "1917" production cost estimates run in the $90 million range. "Dunkirk" cost more (estimates run between $100-$150 million), but Nolan's structurally elaborate gambit paid off with a worldwide gross of more than half a billion. Producers like that, too, of course. And they may see similar risk/reward formulas at work with "1917."

Now: If Quentin Tarantino's ode to 1969 Hollywood and slick, durable machismo wins with the PGA Saturday, there goes that theory. Tarantino's budget on "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood" was comparable to Mendes' budget on "1917." With Tarantino, the priorities were practical, expensive period re-creation, without much digital anything. His movie was a hit, too, and even people who don't love or even hate the ending like the movie anyway. (I'm in that camp.)

Whatever comes to pass Saturday, you know what I'm rooting for come Feb. 9? My favorite film from 2019, that's what. I love "Parasite," because it's so infernally crafty, and because the people inside Bong Joon Ho's story remain at the helm of the storytelling.

It gives you something to think about when it's over, unlike "1917," which is really over when it's over, and which makes for an enveloping two hours - until you realize how little is in the envelope.

"1917" is currently in theaters.

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