I believe too much noise is made about the prevalence of specific genres. 1917 is another war film doing its best to show why the famous saying, “War is hell,” continues to register. This time around, director Sam Mendes utilizes what could be seen as a gimmick to best capture the story he’s telling. Thanks to the efforts of acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins and thousands of others, the film is based around an impossible mission during WWI that is framed within one continuous shot. There are understandably ways a film could feel limited by this approach, and yet 1917 not only works as a thrilling piece of filmmaking but a cinematic work of art relying on performance as much as spectacle.
Set in northern France, during the Spring of 1917, two soldiers are told to see a general (Colin Firth) about a mission. The soldiers are Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chaplin). They are given the task of delivering a message to warn a British battalion of a German ambush. If Schofield and Blake fail to deliver this message, 1,600 men will be killed in this trap, including Blake’s own brother.
That’s the mission, plain and simple. What follows is a near-relentless odyssey relying on high stakes as a driving factor, while holding onto a sense of intimacy, not unlike Children of Men, Gravity, or Son of Saul. Thanks to the screenplay by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Caims, a trick just as effective as the visual wonder of watching this film in real-time is the character work.
Basing a film around a short span of time, with a hyper-focus on two central characters, means having to invest an audience with little beyond the general hope the person they’re following doesn’t get killed. Fortunately, MacKay and Chapman are up to the task. MacKay, in particular, really has the opportunity to shine in the way he must process, act, react, and physically deal with the obstacles thrown his way. It’s another stellar performance in a year full of great ones, with the added benefit of improving a film that could have merely relied on its impressive camerawork.
Not to be overlooked, or hold the film back in its casting of lesser-known stars as the leads, 1917 manages to pepper in several established actors to lend an immediacy to their credibility as notable characters. Firth’s opening exposition plays well enough, but the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, and Mark Strong, among others, all show up to express their own levels of frustration, exacerbation, exhaustion, and anxiousness. These characters help build a broader tapestry that is the world these characters existed in during such an ugly war.
Speaking of which, using World War I as a backdrop has its own sense of importance. This particular setting was chosen to begin with due to the stories a young Mendes heard from his Grandfather, a veteran of The Great War. Putting it on display, in a big-budget studio film, while not new, indeed joins a rarer set of films relying on this less-than-noble war for an appropriately scary atmosphere. That said, WWI has been depicted more often recently (from War Horse to Wonder Woman), and while Peter Jackson’s recent documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, added a whole new layer of perspective for many, 1917 finds a proper way to blend its stylization with the griminess that made this time in history unique.
While the audience is spared the nastiness of mustard gas, this is the sort of war film that takes time to pause and look at the dead corpses scattered around battlefields. Thanks to how the camera tracks our heroes’ every move, we are thrown into various trenches to see just how crowded these narrow areas of supposed safety can get, despite requiring the constant shuffling around of soldiers needing to be somewhere. There’s even plenty of time spent on the weaponry and backpacks these men come equipped with, and how fateful encounters mean a lot more when there’s so much weight on one’s shoulders.
As far as the technical craft on display, this is truly the next level, and I’m not talking Jumanji. Yes, there’s something to be said for the way 1917’s structure has the semblance of a video game, but that’s hardly something to be seen as a detriment. The strengths found in this comparison speak to the immersive nature of a film that’s unrelenting in its choice to portray events in real-time. Even the simplicity of the setup speaks to having something of a blank slate of a character to leave one’s own impression on, despite the superb performances.
Regardless, calling out 1917 for its gimmick misses the point. Seeing a film that’s as exciting as this due to its deliberate choices is the intention. There’s no reasoning in springing on a movie by announcing how inferior it would be if the continuous take approach was removed, as it’s a part of the film’s DNA. As it stands, incorporating this level of technical ambition is something deserving of a high level of admiration.
This certainly speaks to the use of action. Yes, it is a war film, and there’s an inherent drama to the journey these men take, but 1917 also works as a thrilling action flick, with plenty of variety. From the fields being pounded by explosives, to the engagement with a sniper, the characters are thrown into plenty of dangerous scenarios. Even better is the evolution of the various environments. A starkly lit tunnel is later countered by a beautifully shot nighttime sequence, emphasizing the haunted cityscape we wind up in.
For whatever tricks and special effects were used to conceal the various takes required to eventually deliver a beyond satisfying version of a film that has been seamlessly edited together, the result is pure cinema. 1917 will arrive in theaters for audiences to recognize it as a stunning example of why they go to the movies. If that means seeing the brutality of war in a full-on display, so be it, but it shouldn’t diminish the effect of watching a film that is both spectacular in design, as well as reverential for the dramatized historical tale it is telling.
The most fitting way I can wrap this up is by mentioning the brilliant score by Thomas Newman. Likely ready to pick up his 15th Oscar nomination (despite having yet to win), Newman finds all the appropriate ways to help settle the audience into 1917. His compositions not only rise and fall with the action but keep us constantly involved with the mind space shared by the two leads. Even in quieter moments, Newman knows exactly what Mendes is after in delivering on a soundscape that best emphasizes the state of mind in such an extreme scenario. Whether or not there’s much more to delve into on a thematic level for another war movie, 1917 is a marvelously made motion picture. It’s a race against time that excels in so many ways.