Genre: Drama, Thriller, and War Running Time: 1 hr. 50 min.
Release Date: December 25th, 2019 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sam Mendes Actors: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Duburcq
n April 6th, 1917, on the front lines of World War I, a sergeant awakes Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who rouses neighboring soldier Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay), to go see the general (Colin Firth), who has a special job for them. After the two muse over the arrival of mail but the unavailability of food, they’re shocked to discover that their assignment isn’t a trivial affair; instead, they must hand-deliver a letter to Colonel MacKenzie of the 2nd Devons to prevent a German ambush on two battalions, numbering some 1600 men. And they must depart immediately, straight through the battlefield, trusting recent aerial information about a withdrawn German front line, to arrive east of a nearby city. Schofield is understandably wary, but Blake is eager – after all, his brother is among the troops they’ll be saving from a slaughter. “Chin up. There’s a medal in it for sure.”
The movie opens with the main duo strolling through a field, winding through trenches, and then descending into a bunker – with the camera never cutting. With the interminable tracking shots leading and following, it’s quickly evident that “1917” will be something of a one-shot picture – or, rather, full of creative (or obvious) editing techniques to create the appearance of a single, continuous sequence. Unfortunately, it’s a gimmick, regardless of how immersive or convincing it is; and the first time that it’s abundantly clear when a cut takes place, chiefly when characters become enshrouded by shadows while entering or leaving a room, the entire approach feels needless. When it comes to a big-budget war epic directed by an award-winning filmmaker, any method that distracts the audience seems unsatisfying – and certainly beneath the accomplishments of this particular storyteller.
Far more effective is the real-time vibe of much of the picture, which is a natural consequence of a one-shot design. It works incredibly well for a single (though multifaceted) combat mission, especially when time is of the essence and lives are at stake. Strangely, the uniqueness of a WWI setting should have been enough for this cast and crew to regale viewers, which makes it all the more unnecessary to weave a narrative trick into the yarn, most notably when those very stratagems fail to be seamless. At several points, locations have to be cheated in order to close the gap of the several-mile voyage, while time must also be sped up to more quickly transition day into night.
Nevertheless, the trek through no man’s land – inundated with barbed wire, bloated corpses, minimal cover, inescapable craters, gargantuan rats, slippery mud, surveying airplanes, and the general stink of death – is a spectacular arena for harrowing endeavors. Unexpected injuries and unshakeable pessimism further augment the treacherous terrain, while suspenseful, blaring music jolts audiences from any seemingly unintentional second of calm. It’s a bit like a video game, with the absence of cuts, the camera hovering around heads and shoulders while trailing close behind or luring the men onward, and the continual sense of exploration. Locations change routinely, guns remain drawn, and new environmental barriers or threats (such as demolished infrastructure or booby traps) pop up every few minutes. “I thought this was going to be something easy.”
Still, despite the intermittent cinematographic interruptions to the nerve-wracking immersion in WWI chaos, the movie remains unwaveringly tense. It’s unpredictable, violent, pulse-pounding, and emotional, always ready to rattle audiences with ear-piercing gunshots or sudden explosions or weighty tragedy. Plus, the locations are extraordinary; the characters transition between gore-soaked battlefields and rocket-lit ruins to forests blanketed by cherry tree abscission and grassy fields whose craggy furrows reveal bright white clay; horror to beauty, abutting one another. Many of these settings recall wild, postapocalyptic science-fiction, even as the survivalist crucible mirrors “Deliverance,” “Children of Men,” “Apocalypto,” and “The Revenant” (there are also similarities to “Saving Private Ryan,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” and “Dunkirk” in the action sequences). The visuals are consistently stunning. It may not be wholly original, occasionally plagued by the one-shot restrictions, but “1917” is a tremendous, spectacle-driven, edge-of-your-seat thriller.
– Mike Massie