Recent history has given us two incredibly crafted wartime movies by British filmmakers. Christopher Nolan’s tense thrill ride from two years ago played with time and cross editing to place the audience into the WWII action of the beaches of France. Fellow countryman Sam Mendes goes further back in time and gets a similar result in putting the audience on the front lines and in the trenches of French WWI action, although he does it without any cross cutting at all. ‘1917’ is meticulously curated by Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins in such a way that it feels like two distinct one-take scenes following its soldiers in real time, as seemingly impossible a feat as compared to what Nolan does in his film. Call it the anti-‘Dunkirk’.
The film has a simple premise. It starts off with an assignment from Colin Firth’s general (the first of a number of famous Brit cameos) to two young soldiers played by Dean-Charles Chapman (‘Game of Thrones’ Tommen) and George MacKay (one to watch). They are to tread into enemy German territory directly across from the relative safety of their own trenches, and get a message to another battalion a few miles away that their next planned offensive at dawn is walking them straight into a trap. The movie is a series of progressions from point to point, as the men encounter the various horrors and mundanities of war.
The narrative is secondary to the experience of ‘1917’. Mendes and Deakins are flexing on another level with this movie. The story may have been inspired by stories told by Mendes’ WWI veteran grandfather, but its realization on the big screen is an amazing effort of the veteran stage and screen director (‘American Beauty’, ‘Skyfall’). It’s difficult not to view the gimmick of the film without wondering how they did what they did. At times this actually distracts from investing in the characters themselves, although the young, basically unknown actors, are extremely effective in conveying the tribulations, stresses, and bravery needed to carry out such a mission as they are given. But what a gimmick it is – it’s impossible that a big budget feature could’ve been filmed in two takes, but the illusion of such is so clean, clear, and convincing it boggles the mind. There are a number of sequences in the latter part of the film that are absolutely breathtaking in the lighting, staging, and composition, so much so they bring an appreciative tear to the eye. Matching the visuals is an impeccable Thomas Newman score and incredible sound effects/editing, that work to elevate the whole endeavor.
‘1917’ may not have the emotional resonance, complex morality, or guile of some of the best war dramas. What it does have is an engaging minute-to-minute structure that will have audiences reacting on a visceral level. The film set out with the goal to put the audience right next to the soldiers, gingerly traversing through the mud, carefully approaching obstacles, and finally running for dear life as explosions are erupting from all sides. It’s a singular vision that is wholly successful, and while it’s not explicitly a transcendent meditation on the merits or faults of war, it becomes one through its sheer filmmaking virtuosity . . .
Directed By: Sam Mendes
Written By: Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Running Time: 119 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- B+