One of my biggest frustrations of the 2019 movie year was the very “limited” release of the World War I war epic “1917”. It was the only movie I wasn’t able to see before end of the year deadlines. It wouldn’t be a big deal except for the rave reviews from the handfuls who have seen it and more recently it’s surprising Best Picture win at this year’s Golden Globes.
“1917” finally gets its full release and I can begrudgingly say it was worth the wait. As happens too often these days, a small yet unfortunate group of detractors and dismissers have suddenly popped up mainly as a reaction to the film’s win at the Globes. But tossing out the “my favorite movie or nothing” approach, “1917” is a truly riveting experience and an exhilarating reminder of the value of the big screen experience.
The story opens with Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) in a field napping under a shade tree. Enjoy the moment because it’s the last time director Sam Mendes allows us the chance to relax. The two young men are ordered to get up and report to General Erinmore (Colin Firth) for a dangerous mission of vital importance. And just like that, this tense white-knuckled war thriller is off and running.
Their mission itself is the film’s story. After heavy fighting on the French countryside the Germans suddenly retreat prompting the British military brass to send the 2nd Battalion to prepare for a final offensive. But it’s actually a trap set by the Germans who are waiting to ambush the 2nd. With communication lines down Schofield and Blake are ordered to cross enemy lines and get a message to the 2nd calling off the attack. If they fail their mission 1,600 soldiers will be massacred, Blake’s older brother among them.
Visually the film is built upon the illusion of one long continuous shot. In actuality the entire movie is made up of a series of long takes broken up by several cleverly hidden cuts. Arguably the best cinematographer in the business, Roger Deakins shoots each extended sequence with the graceful fluidity of a ballet. His camera is always in motion, dancing with the evocative Thomas Newman score, capturing the main characters and their movements from a variety of angles and perspectives. It’s filmmaking so exquisite that there were times when I found myself admiring it more than the story.
Mendes’ script (co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns and inspired by a story told to him by his grandfather) takes the two protagonists across a variety of hellish, war-torn landscapes: muddy battlefields full of decaying corpses, rat infested trenches, a bombed-out hull of a town where a handful of frightened German soldiers have been left behind. Booby traps, stretches of tangled barbed wire, sniper fire, a crashing biplane – it’s all experienced in real-time (sort of) and each new danger brings out yet another layer of humanity.
With astonishing clarity “1917” captures the ugliness of war in all of its savage, blood-soaked horror. There is no flash, no glorification, no romanticizing. Yes, it features staggering set pieces and truly amazing visual craftsmanship, but you could say this film is much like Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” in its anti-war sentiment. It not only documents the devastation and tragedy but it expresses the futility and vanity of war with a strategic subtlety.
With “1917” Sam Mendes takes his audience on a perilous journey driven by a simple but tightly-wound story soaked in an unending tension. It’s a harrowing tale of heroism, friendship, and sacrifice. At the same time, the film’s remarkable technical achievement can’t be overstated and it’s essential in making “1917” a truly breathless cinematic experience.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS