5 out of 5 stars.
“1917” is a war epic brought down to a more personal level, without sacrificing the scale or horror of said war. That is thanks to director Sam Mendes and his crew, who adhere to a vision for this story—based on an anecdote told to him by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes—that is bold and beautiful and terrifying all at once.
The film is set over the course of one day in April 1917. It’s France, and it’s World War I. Two young British soldiers, William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are tasked with crossing no-man’s land to bring a message from General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to another battalion planning to attack German forces at dawn. The commander of that battalion, Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), believes the Germans are retreating and they have the advantage, but in actuality, the Germans plan to ambush them, and it will be a massacre if the message doesn’t reach them in time.
There’s a nice contrast between Schofield and Blake that becomes evident not long into the film. Blake has a personal stake in this mission: his older brother is a member of the battalion set to attack at dawn. Schofield doesn’t, however; he just happened to be hanging around Blake and got roped into the mission, and his resentment becomes apparent as their journey gets increasingly dangerous. But as the film progresses, Schofield’s determination grows, and in a nice development of his character, he is willing to lay his life on the line to complete his mission. MacKay and Chapman both give great performances, especially considering that technically this film must have been difficult to shoot, and their friendship is believable in the short amount of time that we get to know them. The cast, which is peppered with British favorites in bit parts, also includes Mark Strong as a captain they run in to who gives Schofield some interesting advice, and Andrew Scott, who is delightful as a lackadaisical Lieutenant. It’s Cumberbatch, however, who has maybe the briefest but most important lines in the movie that further tear down any lofty, heroic notions we have of war, and also lends the outcome of this story some ambiguity. The men might be saved one day, but that doesn’t mean the next they won’t get orders to move into battle again. It may all be for naught.
The screenplay, which Mendes co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, doesn’t feel heavy on dialogue at times, but they make every line and every conversation matter, contributing in some way to either character development or the film’s overarching message. Plot-heavy, this film is not; in fact, you could argue that ultimately, Schofield and Blake’s mission isn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. But rather than reenacting a famous battle on a grand scale, it portrays a day in the life of an ordinary soldier, and it’s just as—if not even more—harrowing. Mendes chooses to tell a World War I story that we haven’t heard before, and as personal as it is, he still conveys just how horrible war is, from the cramped trenches to corpses scattered here and there, to a civilian’s ruined farmhouse. Death lurks around every corner, and the tension that accompanies every place Schofield and Blake wander in to rarely lets up. There are heroic acts, absolutely, but this is not an overly masculine war movie. The characters are given the opportunity to express fear, and to mourn the people they lose.
Major props, however, have to go to cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith. “1917” is shot so that it has the appearance of being filmed in one take (think the 2014 movie “Birdman”), and it’s extraordinary. In the opening sequences of the film, the camera follows the two leads through the trenches for a good bit of time, giving the viewer a sense of both the vastness and claustrophobia of the environment. This technique also results in some really fantastic action sequences, tracking our lead characters as their surroundings fall further into chaos. It isn’t perfect, but it’s executed extremely well, resulting in a film that is both incredibly immersive and real as well as purely cinematic. Thomas Newman’s swelling score adds the perfect extra layer of emotion.
“1917” was not yet in wide release last weekend when it won some top prizes at the Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture—Drama. That may have left many people scratching their heads, but I don’t think they will be for long. “1917” is absolutely one of the best films of 2019, a portrait of a war that we believe we know enough about but that is actually fresh and exciting, grand and intimate.
Runtime: 119 minutes. Rated R.