In defense of middlebrow Sam Mendes

Jesse Hassenger

Just about 20 years after he won his first Golden Globe, Sam Mendes is back in the spotlight this week, after winning an unexpected Best Director Globe for his new World War I thriller 1917 (which opens in wide release this weekend) over favored heavyweights like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. The last time Mendes won this award, he went on to Oscars glory with American Beauty. That film was also a big hit at the box office, seeming to signal the start of a major career for Mendes, who emerged during a year that also saw major work from relative upstarts like Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia), and Alexander Payne (Election), among others.

In some ways, that big career did indeed come to pass for Mendes. His follow-up film, 2002's Road to Perdition, made big money when it was still possible for an adult-targeted drama about a hitman to do so. (Tom Hanks playing the hitman helped.) 2005's Gulf War drama Jarhead was one of the more financially successful movies about war in the Middle East; Mendes continued to work with big stars in movies like Revolutionary Road (2008) and Away We Go (2009); and he directed one of the most successful James Bond pictures of all time with Skyfall (2012).

Yet at the same time, it would be difficult to argue that Mendes' reputation has grown over the past two decades. Some of this has to do with shifting feelings about American Beauty, which was a well-liked, even hip choice for Best Picture back in early 2000, but has since been the subject of some reconsideration for any number of reasons (sexism, quasi-satirical smugness, white privilege, the alleged offscreen crimes of star Kevin Spacey). Some of it has to do with retrospective looks at the seminal film year 1999; Jonze, Anderson, and Payne may not have won Oscars back then, but they remain major forces, subsequently making movies like Adaptation, There Will Be Blood, Sideways, Her, Nebraska, Phantom Thread, and many more.

Which is to also say that some of Mendes' diminished reputation has to do with his own work since then, and how some of it falls into that middle space between serious awards contenders and popular hits. It turns out that the visionary director of American Beauty might be more of a respectable middlebrow craftsman — maybe even a gun-for-hire, given his two-movie stint directing the Bond franchise. Skyfall and Spectre are both great-looking Bond adventures (and Skyfall is a series highlight), with gorgeous cinematography and strong performances, but they aren't auteur-driven reinventions of the character. Mendes may be one of the biggest-name directors to ever take a crack at Bond, but he didn't seem to change the Daniel Craig-era's trajectory (apart from the post-Skyfall expectations that these things should be able to make a billion dollars).

All of this makes 1917 seem like this year's designated target of Oscar-related scorn: an easy-to-parse World War I movie with artistic ambitions and pretensions, from a filmmaker who may be the Academy's perpetually outdated idea of a galvanizing talent. It's a part that Mendes and 1917 can play well. By staging a pivotal World War I mission in several extremely long takes stitched together to look like a single shot, Mendes runs the risk of showing off technical virtuosity over any challenging ideas. It's also arguable that he repurposes the gimmicky weirdness of 2015 Best Picture winner Birdman and the harrowing countdown of 2018 Best Picture nominee Dunkirk into something even more palatable to general audiences. 1917 is competing against movies like Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, The Irishman, Parasite, and Little Women for awards, and in that context, it does feel more like an exercise than a great story, more like a well-appointed experience than an organically involving work of cinema.

But taken on its own and divorced from awards-season hype, 1917 is a well-wrought war movie, using the single-minded momentum of its story well. The soldiers tasked with delivering a message that will halt a doomed attack are attempting to outrun their obvious fears, through a hellscape captured with sometimes-eerie beauty by Roger Deakins. (It's also refreshing to see a war movie that's about stopping a battle, not winning one.)

"Middlebrow" can be used pejoratively by plenty of film writers; I'm guilty of that myself, as the term so easily conjures images of tony-looking but empty "adult" dramas like The Theory of Everything, The Danish Girl, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close... pretty much anything from the Tom Hooper/Eddie Redmayne/Stephen Daldry axis of doldrums that has inexplicably garnered multiple Oscar nominations.

Mendes' movies are not quite that. Instead, they occupy that increasingly rare space between genuine art and naked commercialism. Even in an awards context, that's about where much of his post-American Beauty work has landed: Well-reviewed enough to garner awards buzz or even nominations (like Michael Shannon for Revolutionary Road), but not quite pandering (or undeniable) enough to go the distance. But watch The Reader, the Stephen Daldry movie that won Kate Winslet an Oscar for Best Actress, next to Revolutionary Road, the Sam Mendes movie that became her also-ran in the same year. She's fine in the former, and electric in the latter, playing a suburban housewife buzzing with contempt as a way to hold back her despair.

Revolutionary Road is not a subtle movie; neither is its quieter, gentler couple-in-crisis counterpart, Away We Go (which features a career-best performance from the wonderful Maya Rudolph). But subtlety is not a positive value unto itself, and may well make Mendes' films more accessible to younger audiences, despite their veneer of adult respectability. American Beauty wasn't the best movie of 1999, but it's fair to assume that it turned some number of teenagers and even adults on to more ambitious films. 1917 could perform a similar trick. Its one-shot gimmick calls attention to itself, but if it also calls attention to Dunkirk or Children of Men or Russian Ark, is that such a bad thing?

1917 is the Mendes version of highbrow, just as his Bond pictures are his version of lowbrow. Neither of them are all that successful on those levels, but they're both effective for testing the boundaries of his middlebrow theatricality, giving his filmography some extra modulation. If the trademark of the bad Oscar-bait movie is a sense of unearned prestige and often uplift, Mendes movies work hard and at least try to restrain themselves. You know, like a proper grown-up.

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