Review: War is a nasty business that makes for exciting movies. The greats of the genre have taken the epic spectacle of two or more clashing sides and laced in philosophical themes with the taut action of explosions, dogfights, tank battles and all manner of chaos. You’re right for going into 1917 thinking you will see much of the same, but after a few minutes you’ll understand that what it offers is unlike any war film you’ve ever seen – one that immerses you onto the frontlines of chaos, terror, pain, and peace in ways that will shake you to your very core.
The mission is simple: Two messengers are sent on a job to deliver a message, one that could save the lives of 1,600 men about to take on the German forces during the heat of World War I. Director Sam Mendes based the idea for the movie on the stories his grandfather, WWI soldier Alfred H. Mendes, told him when he was a young man. Those stories stayed with Mendes, and after collaborating on the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the story became centered on the two soldiers, Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay). Mendes also enlisted the aid of cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith to place us dead center into their perilous journey across No Man’s Land, into German territory and beyond in what is set up to look like one massive, continuous shot across a single day.
The execution of this approach took me a few minutes to get used to, as the movie starts on a scenic field, our subjects resting somewhat comfortably before being woken up for duty. We follow them as they cut through the encampment, through cluttered trenches, and into the black holes where a General (Colin Firth) gives them their daunting order, then cycling back out to kick into Thomas Newman’s ticking-clock score. It may be a bit hard to keep track of it all at first, but I was surprised by how immersed I soon became as they started their mission, with Blake desperate to get to the British battalion to warn the soldiers, his brother among them. It’s in these earliest moments where incredible tension is wrung not out of an impending battle or exhilarating gunfights, but through the disquiet that comes from the suspense of war.
The two men – and therefore the audience – have no idea if the Germans are still nearby. As the duo slowly make their way across the barren wasteland that is No Man’s Land, we’ve no clue if a bullet could come hurtling out of the vastness. Between the impeccable production design, the surreal work of Deakins and the careful editing of Lee, we’re placed right on the heels of these men and feel every boot print in the mud and every chill up their spine. Appearances by the of likes Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and more recognizable actors are brief and act as bullet points in the grand story, showing the complexity of effects such hardships can have on men. An added bonus will surely be the “Wow, he’s in this too?!” for anyone who has managed to go in knowing as little as possible.
From here on out Mendes and the team showcase a masterclass of filmmaking, blending the story structure of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (get a message to another unit), the intensity and thrills of DUNKIRK, and the stylistic approach of BIRDMAN – coming out with something entirely unique in the genre. An expert job is done blending the sudden chaos of their mission with the incredibly human moments, with Mendes and Wilson-Cairns writing small moments that make the movie more of a study of these characters and their willingness to persevere in the face of the impossible odds. Doing everything in a series of long takes – with the “invisible cuts” so well-hidden by Lee that he is well-deserved of all the awards attention likely to come his way – allowed Mendes to hold on particularly emotional moments, letting the pain and tension of war settle in and play at real-time. It’s brutal and impossible to look away, capturing countless moments with a sense of authenticity untapped by other war films.
Exhibiting true Hitchcockian thrills, these quieter moments lull you into a sense of calm and familiarity, only to erupt into a state of panic and unrest as the brutal nature of war rears its ugly head and throws everything to the wind. Deakins, continuing to prove why he’s the absolute master, frames everything from plane battles to shootouts from the standpoint of one of the main characters, which makes the movie lean just as much into horror as it does war action. In one of this year’s very finest cinematic moments, a chase scene takes place in the fiery ruins of a French village, with only the fire itself to light the crumbled pathways, bullets coming from unseen forces and Newman’s score erupting from tense to operatic. The level of artistry scenes like this operate at is profound and make this an experience that demands to be seen for the first time on the biggest screen, with booming sound – all together putting you through the ringers and hope, like the two men, to come out safely on the other side.
What flaws I can think of also act as a testament to the movie’s visceral power and masterful craft. The way action and terror are constructed and shot is so tremendous that I couldn’t help but want more of them. Long stretches of time are centered on bringing things down a bit, keeping on the faces of the exhausted men to drive home what humanity still exists in the dead of war. As easy as it is to crave more action out of a movie like this, the biggest takeaway is that in confronting the futility of war there are moments to appreciate what beauty manages to trickle through, like the leaves of a cherry tree or the soft singing of a brother-in-arms before the charge. It’s beautiful even when it feels hopeless, and how Mendes manages to pinpoint these moments and stage them with such power is what makes his movie stand apart from the pack, making it as exhilarating as it is deeply human.
But on a much, much lower scale of futility, trying to explain what makes 1917 such a masterpiece in the genre is an impossible task. This is a visceral, heart-wrenching, endlessly intense experience that must be seen to be believed. If you feel worn out from past war movies, this one is the antidote. What Mendes and the team have crafted is one of the most extraordinary cinematic achievements of the year, one where the visual mastery is matched only by the showcase of the triumphant human spirit. At the end, there’s a moment of relief, one which brings it all full circle where, after the storm, the simplicity of a gentle breeze and sunlight brings about some sense of peace, for however long it can last.