Sam Mendes crafts a spectacularly unique war film unlike any other that refuses to relish in its combat and violence, but instead, tells its audience an emotionally captivating story through its depiction of the gritty and raw nature of unforgiving war. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins works to capture every visceral frame of the film and works with Thomas Newman as he constructs a potent orchestral soundtrack that perfectly underscores every moment throughout the two hour runtime. Not a single performer on screen pulls any of their punches as everyone delivers Mendes’ tight script with a pure focus that sells every scene. “1917” is an astonishing achievement in filmmaking on all fronts that will undoubtedly be recognized and studied for years to come.
The story of “1917” is one of fiction that is derived from the real world stories of the world’s Great War. We start by getting introduced to our central protagonists, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) as they are handpicked by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) for a mission of the utmost importance. The mission requires that both soldiers make their way to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment and relay a message to call off the assault on the supposed “retreating” German forces within the next twenty-four hours; if they fail, the battalion will be slaughtered and thousands of men will be lost. With the stage set and stakes known, both men embark on an arduous trek across the invaded lands of northern France making their way through an assortment of environments across the span of a single day.
“1917” is a film that features a good plot, but not a great one; if anything it comes across as thin.. However, Mendes and Krysty WIlson-Cairns’ script does include several moments that seamlessly flow from one to the next and keep the momentum of the story moving forward, while most importantly, leaving long and somber sequences for the film and the audience to breathe giving room for reflection. One of the script’s greatest strengths is its pointed dialogue that says so much with so little. The performers do an excellent job to enhance the script by delivering their lines in a way that evokes a natural sense of emotion that resonates deeply with the audience. From the very start, both Chapman and MacKay come across as genuinely being close friends. We instantly buy into their relationship because every exchange the two gentleman have serves to further build their on-screen chemistry. In one of the film’s earliest set pieces, Chapman and MacKay brilliantly convey their companionship as one that could be classified as a younger brother/older brother dynamic where Chapman’s inexperience in the field is starkly contrasted to that of MacKay’s calm demeanor; every step of the way the two are challenged and we witness their different reactions to a multitude of circumstances that further display their individual intricacies. With that being said, MacKay pulls out a true stand out performance as Schofield within this film. MacKay delivers an absolutely transformative performance that will keep you enthralled from beginning to end; it is a true presentation of skill that should not be overlooked.
You can not discuss “1917” without speaking on the pre-production and execution of this film. Mendes took up the insurmountable challenge to shoot the entire film with the illusion of one continuous single shot (Despite the fact that a keen eye can spot where some of the cuts occur). The significance of the mission is known to both the cast and audience, so crafting this film with a single shot in mind is brilliant because as the passage of time moves forward, we stay on the edge of our seats knowing that with the exclusion of obvious cuts, the film is forced to keep pushing onward. All hands were on deck as the production team sculpted miniature sets to test their lighting rigs and get a direct layout of what needed to be accomplished. A dedicated team of designers were painstakingly tasked with bringing every “1917” set to life; and it pays off. With the knowledge of what track the camera was to follow and dozens of rehearsals, “1917” pulled off what most would not dare to try. When the actors are moving throughout these diverse environmental sets, every segment of the frame is packed to establish a dirty, yet natural world that is as beautiful as it is immersive. Whether it is an object in the background or a character in the foreground, David Crossman, Jacqueline Durran, Dennis Gassner, Lee Sandales, and Robert Voysey come together to create a world that is accurate to the times and precisely encapsulates the depressing realities of the First World War. The technical aspects that help shape “1917” into the marvelous film it is, serve as a reminder of the lengths a focused group of immensely talented people will go to create the best piece of work they possibly can and it should not go unnoticed.
“1917” is an enchantingly tense piece of art that straps you in and never lets go until the final cut to black. Mendes along with the entire cast and crew craft a truly immersive experience that paints the art of war as not one of bombastic explosions and blood, but one of fear, disarray and raw emotional weight that burdens every soldier on the battlefield. “1917” may not have the most engaging story to tell, but it does not need it; the way in which the film was made and shot is a triumph on its own that many can look to and see that an inspired group united to create a powerful work of art that will be talked about for going above and beyond its genre. “1917” is without a doubt, one of Sam Mendes’ finest pieces of work.