“1917” Movie Review


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     As would be expected given the talent involved behind the camera, the one thing standing out the most in director Sam Mendes’ “1917” is the exceptional demonstration of craft.  This is feature filmmaking at its highest level, bringing together all of the elements necessary to create a riveting and important story. The film goes well beyond spectacle and successfully puts the viewer side by side with two British soldiers as they attempt to complete a harrowing task at a juncture where World War 1 is reaching a crucial turning point.  Whether or not “1917” becomes known as a classic war film will be a matter of how well it continues to be received as time passes, but it is certainly one of the best films of 2019 and a crowning achievement in Mendes’ career.

     As many likely are already aware, “1917” unspools as one continuous shot.  Think of it as if a lone documentary film crew were installed with the two main characters and simply followed them for a day.  Of course, much of this is done by connecting each scene with CGI, thus creating the believable illusion.  The story doesn’t play in real time either, instead allowing nearly a day to go by during the two hour running time.  On board with Mendes is legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who again oversees a series of breathtaking landscapes, beautifully shot as the characters move about within them.  Deakins, as film buffs know, has been nominated a whopping 13 Academy Awards for Achievement in Cinematography, winning for the first time in his storied career for 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049”.  Given the stunning work here, a smart bet would see him winning his second in a row.

     “1917” begins with a common military scenario.  A superior approaches a soldier and tells him to choose buddy while directing the pair to accomplish some sort of detail.  Normally, this means doing something neither of them would want to do and they are chosen because of their low rank.  But this is different.  Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are led to a bunker near the British front line where they meet General Erinmore (Colin Firth), who tasks them with a mission bearing life and death consequences.  

     It is the belief of a forward British outfit that the Germans are on the run, and the time to strike is now while they are at their weakest.  But the circumstance is merely a trap, as the aerial shots in possession of General Erinmore indicate the Germans have dug in and fortified their position, expecting the British to charge.  Erinmore knows the result will see over 1600 men killed, with the Germans again seizing momentum and likely winning a key battle in the war.  With phone lines between them and the unit destroyed, the General sends Blake and Schofield on a mission to deliver the intelligence to the forward unit’s commander, Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), before he sends his men on what he doesn’t know will be  a slaughter.

     We leave the meeting with our two protagonists and follow them as they traverse deserted battle fields en route to a location said to be about 9 miles away.  Of course the terrain is treacherous and full of potential pitfalls in the form of obstacles, booby traps, and stray enemy forces.  The script, written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, provides an ample amount of character developing banter between the leads and succeeds in bringing forth the kind of emotional connection between the characters that is necessary to elevate the proceedings beyond that of a first person shooter video game.  And though this is achieved chiefly through the fact Blake’s older brother is a member of the unit about to be sent to their death unknowingly, it is the many characters in smaller roles throughout who supply a true sense of danger in virtually every step these soldiers take.

     When they are engaged by an enemy combatant, we never see the person up close, only the point of view that either Blake or Schofield is seeing.  But the damage they can inflict feels like the shots are coming at point blank range and the level of danger they seem to be in for the majority of the film is ever present and always unsettling.  This is the kind of film experience that gives you that white knuckle feeling people often speak of.  It feels real.  The gun shots, the explosions, and the various pyrotechnics on display rumble and shake the audience in a visceral way of which few films ever actually achieve.  And that appears to be the goal of the filmmakers here.  To put the viewer in the middle of all this in much the same way Spielberg did with “Saving Private Ryan”.

     With all of the bravado on the technical side, it’s easy to overlook the startling performances by both Chapman and MacKay, whose work explores the very depths of their character’s soul and provides a very human interpretation of what it is like to fight in a war, while leaving everyone you care about behind.  Often times not knowing whether or not you will ever see them again.  That the story begins and ends in a similar location is symbolic of what everyone in this situation already knows.  You may have survived the battle today, but it is now time to begin preparing for the battle tomorrow.  War is hell, and “1917” depicts this idea in its most raw form.  GRADE: A