Movie Review: “1917”

editor’s note:  We spoke to the cast and crew of “1917” at New York Comic-Con earlier this year.  Be sure to listen to the interviews on our podcast.

One of the things we have been told about Sam Mendes’ new film, “1917,” is that the attempt to make it look like it is all a single shot is not a gimmick. That is, although Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns wrote the script so that filming the movie in one shot would make narrative sense, the movie would be more than the one-shot look, it would be a full-fledged film in its own right, where the the cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins would work into the whole and build it up rather than being separate from it.

Although this sounds unlikely, I can tell you with great certainty that they have succeeded. “1917” is a triumph on so many levels that the camerawork, brilliant though it may be, is only one part of it all. This is a harrowing tale of two young lance corporals in World War One, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) being sent on a crucially important mission to call off an attack and save 1,600 British soldiers’ lives.

So, we follow the young men on this nine mile journey through trenches (British and German), a farm, a town, open land, and more as they slowly approach their goal. As the lance corporals move, Mendes weaves in other soldiers to the story, which gives opportunity for the likes of Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, and Richard Madden to make quick appearances before disappearing once more.

These individuals all bolster the tale, adding depth, but Chapman and MacKay are more than enough to hold the audience’s attention even without the additions. The two actors are playing young men who have seen the war, who have seen what it can do, and are not sure what is going to happen next. They are trying to sort out not just their place in the war, but also what might occur if and when it’s over. It is exceptionally human and small scale against the backdrop of the massive conflict of the war and the impending slaughter of British troops.

No one would suggest that the tale being told here is beautiful—it isn’t, it is awful and bloody and depressing and triumphant and harrowing—but the manner in which it is told, is indeed beautiful. By keeping the camera going (supposedly), buy staying right there with the soldiers, we become a part of their world, a part of their mission. We are insinuated into their lives and feel all the fear and joy and hate and confusion that they feel. When they go silent because they’re scared, so do we. When they relax a little, so do we. For two hours, we live their ups and downs with them, ducking under bullets, freezing in the water, and praying that we make it to the troops in time.

“1917” would work shot in more traditional fashion. Watching the film it isn’t even hard to see where the cutaways would be and how to add in reaction shots. But, none of that is necessary. This notion that we aren’t cutting away, we aren’t getting those little insert shots, we aren’t moving from these men, it works and not just “works,” no, it makes the movie far better htan it otherwise could have been. Creating the film in this fashion must have been terribly difficult, and some of the cuts are easy to pick out, but it makes the movie a far more personal affair than it could have been.

From a wonderful score (by Thomas Newman) to the intimate portrayals by Chapman and MacKay to the depictions of the locations (and, yes, the camera work), “1917” is an epic story on a human scale. It is an incredible feat.

four and a half stars

photo credit: Universal Pictures

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