Review by Sean Boelman
The newest film from acclaimed director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty), 1917 is undoubtedly the most successful attempt at technical ambition this year, and perhaps even this decade. Taking the simulated one-take structure popularized by Birdman and applying it to a genre that is far more difficult to pull off, Mendes has crafted a marvelous movie that is sure to dominate end-of-year conversations.
Although this film was very much a team effort, a large amount of the credit should go to cinematographer Roger Deakins who has all but locked himself in to win his second trophy from the Academy. The level of planning that was required of these filmmakers to achieve the simulated one-take is thoroughly impressive, but even beyond that, the movie is just gorgeous. Deakins uses the camera in a way that is both thrilling and humanizing, emphasizing the emotion in the story.
The film follows two British soldiers during WWII as they are tasked with delivering an urgent message to the front lines, sending them through enemy-occupied territory. While there isn’t much more to the story than this, it is still extremely compelling thanks to the unorthodox approach that Mendes (and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns) took to this story. Rather than a sprawling war epic, this is a small-scale story focusing on the journey of very few characters.
Because the movie plays out in nearly real time, the pacing is quite unique and effective. From the moment the film starts, audiences will be drawn into the movie and its world. Even when it seems like the story is slowing down, these lulls are almost even more anxiety-inducing because the stakes are established early on and viewers know that the characters are never truly “safe”.
Part of what makes this film so effective is that the character development is so lean and precise. With all of the action, one would expect that there wouldn’t be much time to explore the characters and give them personalities, but the sympathy that viewers will have for the characters is built over the course of the movie subtly and allows the film to be quite hard-hitting.
Other than one or two lines which feel a bit too obvious, the movie resonates surprisingly on an emotional level. In certain scenes when one would least expect it, the film hits an emotional chord that is absolutely heart-breaking. This movie features two of the most gut-wrenching scenes of the year, yet the film never feels like it is simply trying to pull at the heartstrings.
George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman are both absolutely wonderful in their leading roles. Their chemistry together is phenomenal and they are able to completely sell all of the emotion in the more impactful moments. Chapman, in particular, shows the great range he has. However, likely the most interesting thing about this movie’s cast is that it features well-known actors like Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch in small but thoroughly effective parts. Any other director likely would have made them the star of the show, but Mendes allows the up-and-coming talent to shine, and to great effect.
1917 is a gorgeous and captivating war film, and likely the best cinematic experience of the year. This is a movie that demands to be seen on the big screen, with the best projection possible and the clearest sound available. Anything else would be doing this work of art a disservice.
1917 opens in theaters on Christmas Day and expands nationwide on January 10.