Quick Hit: Creative, emotional, and epic.
War films are pretty much a genre of film on their own. Some of the stories seem better told in long form storytelling – like Band of Brothers or The Pacific. Others make very good standalone stories – look no further than Platoon or Saving Private Ryan, which drop you right into the experience of the soldier. But I can’t remember any war film that feels as immediately engrossing and claustrophobic as Sam Mendes’s 1917. Shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, hot off his first Academy Award, the entire film has been constructed to look like it’s a single take. What initially seems a bit like a gimmick quickly builds to one of the most immersive experiences I can remember in a theater.
Part of it starts with the story that is being told. It develops quickly – two young men are lounging next to a field when a commanding officer states that the general needs to speak with them about a task. They’re told that they need to call off an attack that is scheduled the next morning, and that if they don’t, the entire company of men will walk into a slaughter of a trap. This includes one of the young men’s older brothers. It’s immediately established, and there is little to no thought that goes into the reasoning behind this – it is family after all. From there, our two characters begin their slow descent into hell – starting with a slow trek across no man’s land, where dead horses and men seem to lurk inside every pit, and eventually into an underground bunker.
Our two main characters are Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman of Game of Thrones) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay, probably best known for Captain Fantastic). They are given a minor fleshing out – Blake is more excited about the prospect of the rewards that come with a mission well-done. Schofield seems to be more world weary and battle tested, despite making some immediately apparent mistakes, like pulling back barbed wire with his hand. But their chemistry is immediate, and the actors disappear into the roles fairly quickly – Mendes has publically stated he cast men that had very little in the terms of recognizable faces or acting credits so that these would seem as just two other men in the service.
I won’t spoil what comes to pass throughout the film – so much of it hinges on the ability of the audience member to not expect what is coming. Suffice it to say that there are some strikingly emotional scenes that occur at some (for me at least) totally unexpected moments. One of the best gives rise to one of the best uses of a song in a film that I can remember. It’s these little moments that build the characters to the point where they totally overwhelm you as a viewer. I found myself with tears in my eyes more than once. This is all while maintaining the “one take” illusion, which I can only think of two occasions where the seams feel visible.
Overall it’s a beautiful film, and I think it’s one of the best I’ve seen in a while. I’m giving it an “A+”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"