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1917 (2019)

DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes

CAST: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman

REVIEW:

Despite being the original so-called “War to End All Wars” (only to be surpassed for both global scale and body count by WWII a mere twenty years later), WWI hasn’t gotten much attention from the movies. Apart from All Quiet on the Western Front all the way back in 1930, and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, there aren’t many notable films, or even films period, centering on the 1914-1919 conflict. With 1917, Sam Mendes has added at least one worthy entry to the slim ranks of WWI films. Filmed in seemingly one continuous unbroken take, 1917 is a visceral, immersive experience that takes us along with its two protagonists on a harrowing odyssey. It’s not the most “feel good” viewing (though nor is it as unremittingly bleak and hopeless as All Quiet on the Western Front), but it is by turns harrowing, heart-tugging, exhausting, heroic, and satisfying. All Quiet on the Western Front is its only real rival for the best WWI film ever made—not that there’s much other competition for that title—and for one of the last films of the year, it also stakes a worthy claim to being one of the most technically impressive and most powerful.

April 6, 1917: A young British soldier, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), is assigned a perilous mission across No Man’s Land to deliver an urgent message to call off an imminent attack that will launch 1,600 men into an ambush, including Blake’s brother. Accompanied only by his comrade Schofield (George MacKay), Blake sets out on his mission, but needless to say, the odds are not in their favor.

1917‘s premise is simple and straightforward and its narrative spare and terse. Apart from our two protagonists, no one else is onscreen for more than a few minutes (at most), and for the most part the Germans are distant, faceless enemies. Our two leads are thinly-developed—we know almost nothing about them, even their names beyond “Blake” and “Schofield”—yet we become invested in them as we follow them along on their harrowing odyssey. The movie unfolds in real time, with the camera never cutting away, smoothly following Blake and Schofield every step of their journey (surely there was some clever and inconspicuous editing and perhaps a little trickery here, but it’s imperceptible, and the movie has the flawless appearance of one two hour unbroken continuous take). This “you are there” intimacy adds an edgy immediacy to an already tense scenario, and it’s made clear, sometimes in jarringly unexpected fashion, that no character is untouchable, including our protagonists (there’s a bitterly ironic moment that recalls the expression “no good deed goes unpunished).

For the opening act or so, we follow the two on a slow burn as they trudge through mud and make their way through friendly trenches and into abandoned German fortifications and desolate, war-ravaged villages where they have fleeting encounters with people, both callous and compassionate, whom they’ll never see again, and there’s not much respite besides a brief peaceful interlude with a sympathetic Frenchwoman (Claire Duburcq). Eventually there are chases, narrow escapes, a close encounter with a crashing plane, a shootout with a German sniper, an effective jump scare courtesy of a tripwire, and a climactic desperate dash across a battlefield while the camera tracks one character through a sweeping backdrop of hundreds if not thousands of charging extras, but this is not an action movie (at times it’s slightly like a war movie distant cousin of The Revenant). We see bodies strewn everywhere, some providing food for rats, and everything caked in mud. By war movie standards, the violence is not particularly graphic or bloody, but there’s uncomfortable moments such as when one character is forced to crawl over a pile of corpses. And when the bursts of action come, they’re desperate rather than “rah rah”. At the same time, there are moments of heroism (never more so than in the climactic desperate mad dash across the battlefield). Mendes’ frequent collaborator, legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, captures no shortage of striking imagery, perhaps most memorably the blasted ruins of buildings eerily illuminated by rocket flares (the movie is a shoe-in for a Cinematography Oscar nomination, and rightfully other technical nods besides). Production design is excellent, doing the most immersive job yet seen on film of conveying the bleak, grim, mud-caked vista of the trenches, No Man’s Land, and hollowed-out war-ravaged towns. Between this, and the meticulously period-accurate details, we are fully immersed for two hours in a century-old conflict. While the specific characters are fictional, the overall operation portrayed was real and the story was at least loosely inspired by actual events—including accounts told to Sam Mendes by his own WWI veteran grandfather—-and the movie never breaks its sense of “you are there” verisimilitude.

For our two leads, Mendes has gone with near-unknowns. If viewers recognize Dean-Charles Chapman, it’s likely to be as Game of Thrones’ ill-fated Tommen, and even fewer viewers are likely to recognize George MacKay (he was Hamlet in the little-seen Ophelia opposite Daisy Ridley). This is a case where the anonymity of the leads works to a movie’s benefit. Chapman and MacKay give strong, unaffected performances (considering they carry what is nearly a two-man show on their shoulders, this is a not inconsiderable accomplishment) and their fresh faces and our lack of preconceptions about them means they are Blake and Schofield. Some recognizable faces pop up in bit parts along the journey—Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden—but their walk-on roles amount to basically cameos, and apart from MacKay and Chapman, no one is onscreen for more than a few minutes (at most).

By keeping the mission small and simple and tightly focused on two characters, 1917 achieves an intimacy and an immediacy that makes it a fuller and more impactful experience than Christopher Nolan’s recent technically accomplished but emotionally cold Dunkirk. The movie, like its protagonists, stays singlemindedly focused on its objective without side distractions. By turns grim, heroic, and poignant, it’s rivaled only by All Quiet on the Western Front as the standout film about WWI, and beyond that as one of the most impactful and memorable films of the year.

* * * 1/2

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