Synopsis: Two young British privates 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.
Stars: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch
Director: Sam Mendes
Running Length: 119 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review: As we come to the end of the second decade of the 21st century, many have been looking back at the past ten years in movies and musing on how the medium has evolved. Could we have predicted ten years ago that a service that used to deliver DVDs by mail would become a heavy-hitter film studio producing movies that are becoming more and more friendly with Oscar? Would we know that the biggest hits in the end-of-the-year box office tally would be dominated by franchise pictures and the mid-budgeted flicks that kept theaters packed in the ’90s would largely be wiped out? Even the way we watch movies has changed from having to physically go to the video store to nowadays when we can view thousands of choices at the press of a button. What hasn’t changed is the process of getting out of your house, battling traffic, and sitting shoulder to shoulder with others to have a shared experience of movie-going. Sure, the seats are reserved now and more comfortable (and heated!) than your chairs at home but there’s no comparison to being in a cinema seeing a movie on the big screen.
Films about the first World War aren’t as common as those set in WWII (like 2019’s Midway), Vietnam (2015’s documentary Last Days in Vietnam), or in more recent wars that still play a large part in our daily news headlines. The Peter Jackson-produced documentary They Shall Not Grow Old was a staggering piece of filmmaking using real footage from the first World War but for me it wasn’t able to overcome some narrative challenges that were almost unavoidable considering the approach. That’s why the imminent arrival of movie like 1917 is so exciting to me. Here’s a large scale war film that, overdone as the genre may be, strives to be something unique and not just because of its well-publicized “one-shot” cinematography.
By 1917, the “war to end all wars” had been going on for four years and had claimed thousands of casualties. Shortly after the German armies had retreated from their trenches in France, officials received intel the German drawback from their enemies was a well-set trap and now a British battalion of over 1,500 men was walking straight into an ambush. Two soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Blinded by the Light) and Schofield (George MacKay, How I Live Now) are called up and tasked with delivering news of this ensnarement to the front lines before men are sent to a slaughter they are unaware of. Though the stakes are already sky high for the British forces, the importance of success is even greater for Blake because his brother is in the company that will be sent out on the attack first, facing certain death. The two young men set off on a breathless mission through enemy territory that will bring them up through idyllic countryside that masks hidden dangers and enemy-built trenches designed to slow their progress.
Based partly on the recollections of his grandfather, director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) co-wrote 1917 with Krysty Wilson-Cairns and the two have crafted a corker of a war movie that hits the ground running and doesn’t offer much reprieve over 119 minutes. That forward motion is largely a direct result of Mendes working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) to shoot the entirety of the picture as if it was one long interrupted take. Without these obvious moments of cuts, the effect on a viewer is something akin to a relentless rollercoaster with moments of flattened cruising that are small respites to harrowing drops and spins. It’s clear there are moments when Deakins had to cut to use a different camera but aside from a few obvious splices they are hidden so well you’d have to be focused solely on finding these moments to really see them.
Utilizing state-of-the-art technique, “how’d they do that” camera moves, and lighting nighttime scenes to increase their intensity tenfold, it could have been easy for the movie to become all about this trickery but thankfully everyone involved doesn’t let the technology overshadow the story. Mendes helps this along with the casting of Chapman and especially MacKay as the young men on a mission who risk their lives to get their message into the right hands. Chapman’s bravado at the outset hides the fear of arriving too late to save his brother while the more world-weary MacKay has his eyes further opened as he encounters civilians and other troops along the way. The two aren’t totally familiar faces to audiences and that works to the advantage of the immediacy and “anything can happen” created by their mission. The inclusion of more known names/faces such as Mark Strong (Shazam!), Andrew Scott (Victor Frankenstein), Richard Madden (Rocketman), Colin Firth (Magic in the Moonlight), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch) could be seen as a distraction but all play their roles succinctly without much preening for the camera.
This is really a boffo film that knocked my socks off. I’m not usually so enamored of movies about the war but there’s something in the humanity on display from Mendes and Wilson-Cairns that moved me on a whole other level. Aside from the jaw-dropping filming from Deakins that is truly incredible (if he doesn’t win the Oscar this year, I’d be stunned) there is rarely a frame that feels out of place or extraneous. While some war movies can drag on and be a punishing sit, 1917 uses its running time wisely by never letting the characters (or the audience) rest too much. As I watched the film I became conscious that I was holding my breath for a few reasons. First off, the tension created was so spot-on and could only be achieved by a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing. The second is that I didn’t want this spell to be broken and for Mendes and his team to make a misstep. Thankfully, I believe Mendes achieved the mission he set out for and 1917 is one of the very best movies of the year.