War, war never changes…and this film doesn’t shy away from showing the worst of it.
Set over the course of a single day during World War I, 1917 follows two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), as they are tasked with delivering a message to call off an attack that would lead 1,600 British troops to slaughter against German soldiers – Tom’s older brother included. But with time running out before the attack begins and a battle torn countryside specked with German soldiers hell-bent on seeing our protagonists dead by any means necessary, there is serious doubt that the message will be delivered on time, leaving Will and Tom to do everything in their power to complete their mission, even if they have to give their own lives in the process.
Much like other films that have gone down the “one-shot take” route either for the entire film or parts of it (Birdman, Rope, Children of Men), 1917 takes the idea and cranks it up to eleven in every sense of the term. Shots are held for what seems like forever (a good thing), camera movements glide across water, high above our characters or right in their faces without a cut, and conversations and action scenes are shot with an eye for not only what looks good, but what will also give us an unprecedented look at our soldiers’ journey with unflinching eyes and a heavy heart. From the minute the film opens to the second that it closes, we’re following Will and Tom with every step they take and every word they utter, all within real time. The two hour-ish timeframe we witness (one or two instances fudging this idea slightly) is an inspired and interesting wrinkle to the film that adds to the already intense experience presented throughout.
The filmmakers, especially director Sam Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, have pulled off a movie that is a masterpiece on a technical level and just plain enthralling on any level after that. Whether shooting with natural light, barely using the Hollywood crutch that is computer generated effects (that rat in the bunker scene an obvious necessity), or amping the tension of a scene up to untold heights with a score that is as emotionally charged as the story being presented, 1917 sticks with you not just because it shows the terrible side of war (is there ever a good side of it?) in such minute detail, but because it is so clear that the filmmakers wanted to give audiences something special and unlike anything that has been seen before. I have a few nitpicks here and there with the pacing and some of the dialogue, but in all honesty, I have to wrack my brain just to find something to complain about, a feat that not many scripts can pull off nowadays.
A showcase for technical filmmaking at its best as well as a glimpse at some of the most harrowing, anxiety inducing and stressful situations a soldier could encounter over the course of a single day, 1917 excels in nearly every aspect of itself while simultaneously giving us a war film that stacks up with some of the best that have ever been filmed. From the production design, to the lighting, to the illusion of a one take shot, to the real time storytelling that is as emotional as it is harrowing, Sam Mendes and his crew have pulled off a film that truly amazes while also wracking your nerves at every turn. There’s a few scenes here and there that feel sort of filler-y, mostly in order to keep the one take, real time progression of the story moving, but for the most part, 1917 doesn’t waste any time giving us an unflinching look at wartime heroism and what it takes to make the impossible possible.