By John H. Foote
Sam Mendes is back at the Oscars after a twenty-year absence, after winning the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture for his first film, American Beauty (1999). Emerging from TIFF with extraordinary reviews and strong word of mouth, the film blew through awards season gathering steam and by the time the Oscars rolled around, there was no stopping it. Five Academy Awards were awarded the film, a lacerating black comedy about a dysfunctional family and their equally bizarre neighbourhood, narrated by Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) in a cynical, heartbreaking performance in which the director surrounded the actor with greatness. Annette Bening, Wes Bentley, Thora Birch, Mena Savuri, Alison Janney and the great Chris Cooper were astounding in the film, leaving the entire film world stunned by the greatness of the first film directed by Mendes. He added a Golden Globe and Directors Guild of America Award to his collection of awards, and his path in Holywood seemed forged.
But as often happens with great first time directors, they can never quite achieve the success they had the first time. I think of James L. Brooks and Terms of Endearment (1983), five Academy Awards, the DGA, a near-complete sweep of the critics’ awards, and never nominated for Best Director again despite two Best Picture nominees. And Brooks and Mendes are by no means alone. Is it a jealousy from established directors that keep them from the race, or just lousy luck? Some would say both.
His new film is being hailed a masterpiece, which it is, and the finest film ever made about the First World War, both facts. Two young men are charged with delivering a message across No Mans Land to a troop headed for an ambush by the Germans, but their lives will be in constant peril.
The film follows the two soldiers in a single shot, an astounding achievement that gives the audience the horrifying experience of being with the men as they move through hell on earth. Trenches littered with rotting corpses and vermin, ponds of filthy water and blood, madness and chaos, we see this war as we have never seen it before. In recreating the war Mendes replicates hell on earth, as though it has sprung from the bowels of the earth.
Mendes has always been a fine director, and his films Road to Perdition (2002), a superb gangster epic, and Revolutionary Road (2008), a seething study of a young fifties couple coming apart at the seams, each deserved greater Oscar attention and certainly Best Director and Best Picture nominations.
Through the history of the Academy, the war film has been treated very well, which bodes well for 1917, though on the other hand Apocalypse Now (1979) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), perhaps the two greatest war films ever made, while both nominated lost.
In a year of five genuine movie masterpieces, it would not surprise anyone to see Mendes win his second Oscar and 1917 tall stand as Best Picture.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.