There has been a slow but steady stream of war films released in the last few years, but very few have been as straight-up impressive as 1917. While it’s light on plot, this grueling and tense wartime odyssey is more than served by its immaculate direction and committed performances.
Sam Mendes, director of Skyfall, American Beauty, and Jarhead, returns to the battlefield with this World War I epic. From the start, it’s very clear how personal this film is to Mendes. Soldiers from all walks of life are present, and there’s such an attention to detail that it could only be envisioned by someone who has studied the time period. His direction is equally as reverent; the decision to make the entire film appear in one continuous shot really sells the slowness and personal nature of this grand conflict. Thousands of people died for mere feet of land in WWI, and 1917 makes you feel and take note of every inch. Mendes keeps the film tense but never unsteady, resulting in one of the most frightening yet balanced films of the year.
The plot follows Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) as they are tasked with crossing No Man’s Land to reach an English battalion to save them from an ambush that would result in the deaths of thousands of young men, Blake’s older brother included. For most of the runtime, that’s what the plot is: one long fetch quest. It goes from set piece to set piece without much story to back it up, and while it’s always thrilling, it feels a bit bare. However, the third act brings a few changes that really bring the story’s purpose into focus, and it ends with a moving series of final scenes. It takes awhile to get started, but undoubtedly sticks the landing.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
This film lives and dies by Chapman and MacKay’s performances, and the two leads are more than up to the task. Both bring a welcome humanity to their inhuman and hellish surroundings, grounding their conflicts in a true sense of reality. MacKay deserves special recognition for his unbelievably committed physical performance; it’s the kind of role we rarely see in films, and MacKay sells every second. He’s brilliant. Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden are all well-used in what are essentially cameos, with Scott being the standout as usual.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
This area is where the film truly shines (well, here and the cinematography). Each gunshot, explosion, and scream cut through the mix for maximum effect. 1917 is a terrific sounding film, and that is also in large part to Thomas Newman’s brilliant score. Full of harrowing crescendos and moments of haunting reflection, the score is almost a character itself.
This film is an excellent example of using CGI sparsely to great effect. This film is immersive and gritty, fully believable from the moment it starts. I’m admittedly not much of a WWI scholar, but from what little I knew, the costumes and props all looked like they belonged to that era. I was immersed.
There has been a lot said about 1917’s single-shot gambit. Some have called it a gimmick, while others praise its audacity and implications. I am firmly in the latter’s camp. 1917 is an unforgettable journey through one of the worst conflicts humanity has ever created, anchored by some strong performances and impeccable technical craft. See it on the biggest screen possible, and don’t forget a helmet. It just might leave you shell-shocked.