- “1917” is set during World War I and follows two British privates who have to travel behind enemy lines to deliver an important message to their allies.
- The director Sam Mendes has made the movie feel as if it consists of just two continuous shots.
- The movie is an emotional thrill ride that needs to be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated.
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This review was originally published on November 25, 2019, and has been updated to reflect “1917’s” Golden Globe win for best picture – drama.
War movies are one of the hallmarks of the moviemaking business. Since the advent of the moving image, storytellers have been so captivated (and horrified) by the sights that they consistently make movies about the topic.
Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Jarhead,” “Skyfall,” “Spectre”) is the latest to take on the genre and has done it with a masterful hand in the epic “1917” (in theaters Christmas Day).
Inspired by stories told to him by his grandfather, who fought in World War I, Mendes takes the hugely ambitious task of designing the movie so it feels as if it consists of just two continuous shots.
Clearly a personal project for Mendes, who has a screenwriting credit for the first time in his career (sharing it with Krysty Wilson-Cairns), “1917” stands out in the war-story genre for its pristine execution from all departments: production design, costume, visual effects, score, and especially photography.
Shot by the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, marking his fourth time collaborating with Mendes, the movie has all the makings of becoming one that will define Deakins’ storied career (and will most likely earn him a second Oscar to go with one for “Blade Runner 2049”).
The camera really is the star of the movie – no offense to any of the actors. But the artistry of how this movie is photographed will be marveled over for decades to come.
Take the opening of the movie, in which the British privates Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are told to report to the General. The shot is of the two soldiers getting some shut-eye by an open field. As the scene progresses, that shot becomes narrower and narrower as more things fill in both sides of the frame. With the camera pointing at the characters and moving backward, we can’t see what is coming at them. But as we watch the pair walk and talk, things around them begin to reveal what they are a part of. After 10 yards or so of walking, we see more and more soldiers resting and interacting. And then things become even narrower as the two walk into a huge trench to get to the General.
That’s just one example of how the movie’s style brings loads of surprises, and with Deakins as director of photography it is gorgeous to watch.
In “1917,” Blake and Schofield are ordered to hand deliver a message to their allies in enemy territory. If the privates don’t get the message to the leader of the battalion, then 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother, could perish.
The movie then becomes an intense race against time that includes a harrowing march through no-man’s-land, a Germain occupied town, and more trenches.
There is only one blatant cut in the movie. It occurs following a dramatic moment when the screen goes black. Other than that, there is no break in the action, which makes it impossible for the audience to catch a breath (and fun to try to catch where the other edits in the movie actually take place). There are a couple of moments when things drag on for a beat too long, but other than that the movie is an emotional thrill ride.
And I can’t stress enough that you should see this movie on the big screen. There is so much going on in the frame all the time that you want to feel fully immersed in it.
There are moments in the movie that are hard to watch, regarding gore and violence, but in no way does it go to the level of, say, “Saving Private Ryan.” Mendes mixes the horrors of war with some touching moments that show hope even in darkness. That can range from Schofield aiding a mother and a baby by giving them his canteen (filled with milk), to a soldier singing to his platoon before they go into battle. Mendes and Wilson-Cairns discovered both of these true instances when researching for the script.
This is certainly a movie that will stay with you for some time.