Recommendation: Technical mastery, camera wizardry, and strong, believable performances give viewers a front row seat to the brutality, banality, and helplessness of war. 9.5/10.
IMDB Synopsis: Two young British soldiers during the First World War are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, and one of the soldier’s brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.
There’s a long line of war films that give the viewer a greater appreciation (or revulsion) to war. Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, even Dunkirk, all are prisms through which we view war: Its callousness, its psychological effects, or the overwhelming helplessness of it all. In director Sam Mendes’ new film 1917, the themes are no different—brutality, anxiousness, desperation, boredom—but the cinematic gimmick gives the audience a front row seat to all of it, as never seen at this scale on film before. Gimmick isn’t the right word. Shot as two distinct “oners”—scenes where there are no camera cuts or edits—1917 two hour runtime requires unheard of choreography to utilize a shooting style that usually is minutes-long at best (see True Detective season 1) and terribly, awfully hacky at worst.
The premise of the movie is incredibly simple and serves the film well. Two British Lance Corporals, Schofield (George Mackay) and Blake (Dean Charles-Chapman), are to deliver a message to the front lines that will stop the British offensive. Arrive before dawn or 1,600 men will die (including Blake’s brother). Clear cut, purposeful, and the stakes are personal. Rather than cutting from scene-to-scene in traditional films, the camera—and by extension the audience—are along for the ride as a third member of the mission. It’s an exhilarating, tense, and fraught viewing experience. But it’s more than dodging mortar blasts with our heroes that gives 1917 its lived in realism. It is two men sharing jokes on a battlefield. It’s nervously exploring evacuated German bunkers by flashlight. It’s nervously sneaking through enemy territory by flare-light. It’s a comforting moment between men as their comrades lay dying. It’s an intimate and small moment with a displaced French refugee.
Throughout the journey, as Schofield and Blake experience war in real-time, the reminders of war and its brutal aftermath of battle lay everywhere. Dead, bloated bodies are strewn everywhere—craters, razor wire, river eddies. Carrion flies roam free on the battlefield. Houses and towns lay in ruin. And it’s not just the dead. The living are broken, too, as the helplessness of the machinations of war take their toll on soldiers and civilians alike. But throughout 1917, through the actions of our leads, the audience is treated to a bit of hopefulness. That small acts of heroism can affect change, or at the very least, bring a sense of closure to some. That even in the worthless affair that was WWI, that not all lives needlessly be thrown away; that small acts of courage and bravery can make a difference.
1917 is a rare film in 2019, where the technical conceit of the film matches up beautifully with the direction, acting, and themes to create something that’s larger than the sum of its parts. Our two young co-leads are believable and charismatic, while famous faces pop up just often enough to add a bit of relevance—Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott to name a few. The greatest living cinematographer Roger Deakins breaks the mold again with the camerawork, and Sam Mendes (newly knighted) directs a taut and economic war film that hits home with maximum effect. 1917, is, for lack of a better word, a masterpiece.
MVP: The cinematography is the winner here. While there is most certainly some CGI or trickery being used that it’s not truly two shots, the whole two-shot concept for a 119-minute war film is outrageous, bold, and an achievement.
Director: Sam Mendes
Studio: Universal // Original release date: December 25, 2019