War movies have been done before. Audiences have seen many directors’ takes on both World Wars–from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. So many versions of the “war movie” have been produced at this point that new filmmakers would need to come up with an entirely different approach in order to make the experience feel fresh and original. Sam Mendes’ 1917 is a new war film that wildly succeeds on that front and much more. What’s the new approach? A World War I movie that feels as though it is filmed in one continuous take, similar to Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s genius 2014 film Birdman. Mendes’ experiment succeeds with flying colors, setting a new standard for what is expected in modern period pieces and war films.
As soon as the film starts we are dropped into the adventure of two soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) who are deployed in France during World War I. They are called in by their commanding officer and told that a nearby battalion is walking right into a trap by attacking the receding German forces. Chapman’s brother in the movie serves in this battalion, so they must deliver the message to not attack before a potential massacre occurs, killing hundreds or possibly thousands of British soldiers including his brother. All of the events of this film take place in one day as the two men make their way across no man’s land and through abandoned cities in order to arrive at the front lines of this battalion’s forces. From the minute the mission is assigned to the last 30 seconds, the film is a ticking time bomb, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats for the entire duration. When the credits roll at the end, it feels as if a breath can finally be taken due to the last two hours of non-stop suspense.
1917 is a technical revelation. The accomplishments that Mendes and crew achieve with this one-shot technique are unparalleled, creating a scenario where the viewer feels like the third person tagging along on this quest. This makes the suspense more palpable because the audience is immersed in the experience and all the senses are felt right along with the main characters. The blocking of the main characters in relation to the camera flows in a natural manner that makes it feel effortless, but upon further examination the specific movements are incredibly well-rehearsed and executed to perfection. Scenes that simply consist of the two main characters walking through the trenches and having a conversation are stunning to watch due to the expert camera movement and electrifying performances which carry the action.
Another thing that stuns here is Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography. Anyone who has been following his recent work knows that he can do no wrong, and every single film in which he is the director of photography, from Blade Runner 2049 to No Country for Old Men, ends up looking mesmerizing and beautiful. 1917 is no exception. He is almost guaranteed to snag another Oscar for his work here and rightfully so. The visuals really shine in a sequence taking place in an abandoned and blown-apart town at night, where the dark streets are lit by orange flares and the fires that steadily burn away at the decaying buildings. Settings like this are what make this film so jaw-dropping on a technical level. The sound design also helps immerse the audience in the events of the film, with the gunshots and planes feeling just as piercing as being in this situation might sound.
The underrated aspect about 1917 is the acting, particularly from George MacKay. The physical acting on display from him is astonishing and more impressive than most of the performances that actually got nominated at awards shows. He emotes on a level that gets the point across in each scene without taking the audience out of the story. There are multiple scenes which I won’t reveal here where I have no clue how he pulled off the insane amount of physical and emotional stress without cracking. While MacKay is the shining star, there are also supporting performances that are subtly great, like Andrew Scott and Richard Madden. Both of these actors have as little as a couple lines of dialogue to work with, but this doesn’t stop them from making their small parts memorable.
While not everything in this movie is plausible on a logical level, it thrives regardless. A suspense of disbelief is required, but once that small hurdle is passed then the film becomes an immersive journey worth taking. It may not comment on everyday society like some of the smaller and more poignant films in recent memory, but it accomplishes a feat that few films have the discipline or talent to even dream of. Mendes’ ambitions here are worth every minute of rehearsal and dollar spent, with the product being a thrillride that Hollywood will remember in years as being one of the best films of 2019.
I give 1917 an A.