Director Sam Mendes’ “1917” is a WWI film that catches your attention, invites you into its domain and captures you in its glory from the very beginning. There have been hundreds of war films made over the years, but few have achieved such technical brilliance as this visual miracle of a movie, making it stand as the best war film since 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.”
Shot in one continuous take by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, “1917” continuously surprises us by how Deakins and Mendes were able to pull off various sequences. Shooting a film in one long-take is in itself a tremendous visual achievement, but what makes this film so special is how it manages to incorporate all of the commotion going on in a chaotic war zone in a single take.
Set in the title year during the first World War in the battlefields of Northern France, British soldiers, Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, who played King Tommen in “Game of Thrones”) and Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), are sent on a mission deep into enemy territory to send a message to a fellow battalion to call off an attack that would unintentionally lead to the deaths of 1600 men due to German forces maneuvering a deadly trap. Both soldiers face the grueling hardships of war and fight for survival to deliver the message. Blake is determined to beat time to save his older brother who happens to be in the group.
Sam Mendes has crafted the most majestic and elaborate film of his career. Few filmmakers have generated such consistent tension that keeps the audience on edge due to the intensity manifested. Mendes is able to grip us solely through following our main characters along their journey — the two are always in potential danger, the enemy’s gunshots or bombs always in anticipation of going off. We never know when an attack will escalate or when the two men will be shot at, creating a sheer pressure for the characters that hits the audience with a punch solely on the build-up and not necessarily the actual combat.
Many war films often end up being action movies, having the protagonists be unbeatable heroes who never really face any danger. Mendes depicts a realistic version of warfare. The simple inconveniences that may seem unnecessary such as a truck getting stuck in the mud, bumping into fellow soldiers while running across a battlefield or cutting your hand on barbed wire all make the film more believable and allow us to truly get a feel for what the characters are experiencing and how uncomfortable war can be.
“1917” isn’t the type of war film that will fill you with powerful emotions and doesn’t necessarily excel at character development. We don’t learn much about either main character, but Mendes intentionally orchestrates the film in such a manner. What the “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition” director tries to pursue is to express how each soldier was simply a number and explores how two seemingly unimportant soldiers are given great importance. While a unique approach, the film would be even more monumental if we got to know more about the two men we follow in order to identify with them, mostly in part due to the excellent performances by the two young actors.
There’s no denying that “1917” is masterful mostly in part due to its stunning filmmaking. What the film lacks in narrative and characterization, it more than makes up for simply by how mesmerizing it looks on screen. The cinematography is not only extremely impressive, but it will change the way movies are made. There have been one-take films like “Birdman”, from 2014, but no film with so much commotion occurring has been shot entirely in one take. Somehow, Deakins and Mendes made a film that flows so gracefully and captures all of the details of war. Every second of the film you feel the creative strategies of a director and cinematographer, making it a truly unique cinematic experience and stunning technical achievement.
Focusing the film around beating time to deliver the message allows the audience to feel a constant sense of conflict. While intense and grueling, Mendes manages to explore the humanity often forgotten during the war; two sequences, in particular, standing out as beautiful and moving amid explosive carnage and kinetic intensity.
With a Golden Globe win for Best Director and Best Drama Film, “1917” is a serious contender at the upcoming Academy Awards. Surely one of 2019’s best films, this is a film capable of inciting elevated levels of wonder and awe due to its master-class filmmaking and showcase of true persistence.
Final Grade: A
Dominic LeRose is a staff writer for The Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.