Tales of war walk a precarious line: showing the bloodshed of battle without glorifying it, depicting the immense scale of devastation without breaking the budget, and generating emotion on an individual level in an event which affects potentially millions. The last film to truly accomplish this was 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998), which walked away with five Oscars for its troubles. Director and co-writer Sam Mendes ('Spectre', 'Skyfall', 'American Beauty') has attempted to tell his own family's war stories with '1917', but with a very modern and ambitious approach.
It's France on the 4th of April 1917. Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay, 'Captain Fantastic', 'Pride') and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, 'Before I Go To Sleep', TV's 'Game of Thrones') are deep in the throes of World War I when they are entrusted with a near-impossible task: deliver a message to call off an impending attack on the enemy to save the lives of 1,600 British troops. With the clock against them, they must journey into enemy territory to ensure the information arrives before their fellow countrymen fall into the trap.
The missing piece of the puzzle is also the most prominent part of the film: the story plays out in real-time, as one continuous shot. It's a crazily ambitious technique that Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins ('Blade Runner 2049', 'Fargo') aim for, and it's a jaw-dropping success. The mise en scène is used effectively to immerse the audience in the chaos; we walk alongside our protagonists, see the dead and decaying bodies, feel the flecks of mud press against our flesh, and experience the gunfire as it resonates through our bones. There are moments of beauty, and yet even these cinematic achievements are instances of immense devastation - cautiously creeping through Écoust as the town burns around you is the pinnacle of the film's spectacle, both breathtakingly stunning and fiercely horrific. There are moments when the camera moves in incomprehensible directions that left me wondering, "How the hell did they just do that?!"
Therein lies the film's biggest problem, however: too often, I was left thinking about the camera's motion rather than about the story itself. There are numerous times when our leads interact with other characters where it comes off like a video game vignette; there's a shallowness to the correspondence that deprives the story of complexity or sincerity. There's too often a conscious awareness we're being led along a linear path, and that commits the film to a little predictability.
The story plays out in real time, as one continuous shot. It's a crazily ambitious technique that Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins aim for, and it's a jaw-dropping success.
That said, these moments are balanced by the superb work of MacKay and Chapman. Other characters in the story are present for a handful of minutes at most, so their performances are the tentpole which keeps this film aloft. Their dynamic is impeccable; Blake's singlemindedness in achieving their mission is driven by his brother's impending involvement in the attack, while Schofield offers a more cautious approach to their task. They are the multi-dimensional element of '1917', displaying bravery with fear, sadness and longing, friendship alongside loyalty, and imperfections that make them real soldiers. We go along on their journey because they aren't war machines, but real human beings who have found themselves in this incomprehensible horror.
The final element in this enormous project is the production design. Dennis Gassner ('Blade Runner 2049') has built a world with immense attention to detail, from the labyrinth of trenches to the ruined towns. Similarly, Lee Sandales' ('War Horse') set dressing is impeccable; the pairing of these two talents has reconstructed the environment of the First World War to a point where the camera can freely move in a 360-degree space. This alone reflects the effort executed by their teams.
I really wanted to give this film five stars, but there is a curious introspection that prevents me from calling it perfection. Nevertheless, '1917' is a brilliant piece of art, and clearly a personal project for Sam Mendes. Blending groundbreaking technology with detailed production components, it's sure to entertain audiences and garner respect from critics for its execution. Just don't say I didn't warn you when the Oscar nominations come out.