It is the spring of 1917, late in the first World War. Two British soldiers, Blake and Schofield, are handpicked for a mission into enemy lines to reach another unit and halt a disastrous offensive. The obstacles between them and their objective? Pockets of shrewd resistance from the German army, the mutilated French landscape and a distressingly small amount of time.
Director and writer Sam Mendes’ “1917” is one hell of a movie. “1917” is an achievement in filmmaking that is artfully shot, composed and edited. The performances are great, the score is fantastic and every aspect of the film is Mendes and co. firing on all cylinders.
Before that, however, much praise must be given to the performers, primarily Dean-Charles Chapman as the fresh-faced Blake and George MacKay as the weary Schofield. This movie is set in real-time between two soldiers — one weary and the other excited — so the focus of the movie isn’t going to be about their innermost thoughts. But that doesn’t mean that Chapman and MacKay don’t do a great job, even when there’s no dialogue to express emotion. Instead, their body language conveys the toll of their journey, and by the end, that body language is screaming about the horrors they’ve gone through.
Praise must also be extended to the one-off cameos from other famous British actors, as even they don’t phone it in and I would go so far as to say that there is not a single bad or merely ‘mediocre’ performance across this nerve-wracking journey.
A nerve-wracking journey shot and edited to look like one single two-hour take.
There has been much discussion and hype around this part of the movie . . . and it’s awesome. While some may call the decision to shoot and put it together as one extended tracking shot ‘gimmicky’ — especially in light of it beating “Parasite” at the Golden Globes — it’s not just a one-shot film.
It’s a one-shot film that has Roger “Currently The Greatest Cinematographer Alive” Deakins working the camera. The man has shot some of the greatest films ever made, from “The Shawshank Redemption” to “Arrival” to “Blade Runner 2049,” and that experience is present in every single moment of the movie.
Whereas Mendes could have simply shot it with the same deftness and sharpness as his previous Bond films, — the still excellent “Skyfall” and the bland “Spectre” — the one-take strengthens the investment of the audience in the protagonists’ situation and how they deal with it.
There’s an intimacy it establishes that is humanizing while simultaneously uncomfortable. This also exposes the audience to those same feelings of uncertainty and paranoia these guys are experiencing as they push further and further into unknown territory.
Thanks to this, nearly every scene, even the ones where Blake and Schofield are out of harm’s way, feel tense and keep us on the edge of our seats with fearful anticipation of a sniper hiding off-screen, an out-of-view tripwire or some other terror of war.
This dedication to immersing the viewers also comes with everything in the physical set design. Aside from the costuming and accurate equipment the soldiers use, each location has its own little nuances that make them feel as if they were actually lived in and had a history to them, a history that exists outside of what we’re shown.
The enemy trenches have graffiti scribbled across walls and a canteen resting in a little nook in the sandbags. A decrepit farmhouse has a lonely doll and broken bits of glass and furniture everywhere and No Man’s Land isn’t just littered with destroyed tanks and corpses. Those corpses are decomposing and often indistinguishable from the mud. This isn’t merely a fictional simulation of past events, it is a single moment in some slightly alternate universe we’re experiencing, one that feels as it had existed before the film and will continue to do so long after the credits roll.
Now, the movie isn’t without faults. While it does indeed maintain a seemingly unbroken tracking shot, there is one part where the film fades to black, effectively bisecting it into two long takes. It may have served a purpose to the plot, but it can also be taken as the screenwriter perhaps compromising the aim of the film to squeeze more tension from it.
There’s also the lack of any relatively deep character development, but that can honestly be put aside to the fact it isn’t that kind of movie. You’re in the moment, and these guys are more concerned with staying alive than naval gazing. Still, some more development would have been well appreciated.
Another critique, albeit a very nitpicky one, is a pretty noticeable use of CGI to double for a character after an extended chase sequence.
These minor negatives cannot detract from that fact “1917” is yet another breathtaking epic from director Sam Mendes. Crafted with such care in all of it’s finer parts, I cannot recommend “1917” enough, especially while it’s still on the big screen.
Final rating: 4.5/5
Featured Illustration: Austin Banzon