In a word…RIVETING.
If nothing else, proven director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and masterful DoP Roger Deakins deserve a massive round of applause for the technical achievement that 1917 is. The effort and care that went into crafting this deceptively simple story is clear to see onscreen and I personally found this instant classic of a war film to be more of an experience than just a simple trip to Escapism Land.
Today, I had 3 choices, as I was determined to get my ass to the cinema, as I haven’t been able to nerd out over a new movie since the weather turned to shit a few weeks ago. My options were The Rise of Skywalker, which I’m amazed to realize I don’t give a shit about, (having once been the World’s Biggest Star Wars Fan!), and Bad Boys for Life, which I’m getting more and more hyped for the more I hear about it (I’ll slip a viewing in for next weekend ; ). Both of those, by their very nature, are disposable pieces of pop-culture entertainment…and I felt like seeing a FILM, which by all accounts, is exactly what Sam Mendes had crafted.
Now, I can honestly say…he most certainly has.
I’ve enjoyed almost every movie that Sam Mendes has directed, going back to the excellent American Beauty in 1999 (too bad about that whole Kevin Spacey connection thing…at least Mendes put him down like a dog at the end!) and all the way through Road to Perdition (2002), Jarhead (2005) and Skyfall (2012). Admittedly, his last outing, his strangely lazy-feeling sequel to Skyfall, Spectre (2015), represents a low point in his career (yet individual scenes in that flick still do kick ass!), so coming back into the fold with THIS film is simply a picture-perfect way of how one gloriously rebounds after a professional stumble.
The story of 1917, as noted earlier, is refreshingly simple – In the hellish trenches of WW1 France, two young British soldiers, Lance Corporals ‘Blake’ (Dean-Charles Chapman) and ‘Schofield’ (George McKay) are assigned a daring and treacherous assignment. Aerial reconnaissance has revealed that the retreating German forces have instead set a deadly trap for 1600 British soldiers preparing to surge forward at dawn the next day, ‘Blake’s older brother included. The two soldiers must cross the dreaded No Man’s Land into German territory in order to get the ‘Stand Down’ message to the commander of the imperiled forces. The story follows them through the carnage and devastation, where they have to use their wits and determination to complete the vital mission in the face of lethal odds.
That’s how I felt when I walked out of the theatre this afternoon, numb to the world by what 1917’s 1 hour and 53 minute run-time had done to me. That was an intense, masterfully executed exercise in suspense and action that, in my opinion, MUST be seen on The Big Screen. It’s THAT good! I can safely say that 1917 will easily stand shoulder to shoulder with classic war films such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Platoon (1986), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Black Hawk Down (2001) and Dunkirk (2017), when it’s all said and done. What sets this one apart from those masterpieces is the ‘gimmick’ of presenting the narrative through the eyes of a single, roving Point of View; the illusion of one, continuous take. I write ‘gimmick’ without a hint of sarcasm or cynicism, as this stylistic choice pays off in spades. It’s shockingly effective at times, and kept me sucked right into the unspooling narrative. It also helped that the Production Design is fantastic as well. During many scenes that lead and follow our two protagonists through various trenches and battlefields, I found my eyes wandering to the backgrounds, to take in the insane attention to detail that Mendes had inserted. Nothing seemed out of place and it all felt ‘real’, based on what I’ve read and seen of WW1. This aesthetic was also greatly aided by the sheer volume of ‘grit’ that’s generously slathered over this production. Mud, blood and ruin in all directions and most of it appeared to be ‘in camera’, which I will always appreciate. I also really liked the music, by frequent Mendes collaborator Thomas Newman. Much of the score was low, ominous tones, that would build in intensity as select sequences played out, often reminding me of the superb intensity of the Dunkirk score, by composer Hans Zimmer. Then…there were the scenes where Mendes wisely omitted score, just letting the natural sounds of the environment frame the movements of ‘Blake’ and ‘Schofield’, further pulling the viewer into the experience. It must also be mentioned that, while this story is a simple one, containing elements that we’ve all seen before, it does still pack a surprise or two. There’s a pair of twists that occur toward the end of the 2nd Act that both shocked and impressed me. They took a chance with the narrative and the audience’s expectations, and I think it paid off nicely. It sent the story in an off-kilter direction I didn’t expect…and that always works for me.
Now for the Negatives…I’m not going to bullshit you…at this point, I have nothing negative to say about 1917. I was very impressed…that about sums it up.
All in all, I was VERY happy with my choice of movie today. I got almost exactly what I hoped for from 1917 and what I got (and hoped for) was a simple, to-the-point story, led a couple of likable, yet believable leads, set against a painstakingly detailed and intricate backdrop that pulled me into the filth and tension of WW1 in a way I’d never seen before. There’s a welcome handful of cameos from a number of accomplished British actors I guarantee you’ve seen before and they all contribute their own little ‘something’ to their scenes, further bolstering the story and the accompanying experience. The music and sound design are also great and technical precision achieved to present this in the guise of one long take is beyond admirable. They set out to do something different and, in my opinion, they pulled it off beautifully.
Obviously, I’m fully recommending 1917…and not just to war movie buffs. This flick is an immersive Experience and would be a terrific introduction to what The Great War may have been like for those who have no idea of the history or mechanics of WW1. Academia aside, just as an ‘adventure’ movie, it more than delivers and I genuinely hope it does well the theatre, as the effort and cash that went into crafting this impressive title are plain to see onscreen…and you should try to see 1917 on the BIGGEST SCREEN you can find.
It’s well worth it.