It’s often said that we take for granted the sacrifices of those who have fought in war. There is no greater human frailty than the one that insists we settle conflicts with violence. Wars are the ultimate betrayal of humanity’s promise. It is because of the debt all who come after owe to all those who fought before that there have been and will always be war movies. There is no better way to translate the breadth and scope of loss and the intimate cruelty of war than by reenacting it. Some of the best films of all time have been war movies, for a reason. There is no greater drama and when done well, a war movie can tap into the deepest emotions and provide an epic tale on a vast canvas.
I have seen a lot of war movies, but I have never seen one quite like 1917.
1917, the latest film from Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes, is a cinematic triumph. It is a testament to the incredible power of the medium, a textbook example of what can happen when every artist, every department, every designer and every actor work together to tell a story. 1917 has a very simple plot: two British soldiers must get a message from one regiment to another, across enemy lines, during World War I. The stakes are high, the challenge is great. That’s it. Two men must get from point A to point B. What happens from there is an astounding choreography of acting, cinematography, sound, production design, score and direction that is beyond words in its precision and effectiveness.
Mendes shoots the film in a one-take style, which means the entire film looks like it was done in one consecutive shot. Eagle-eyed viewers can spot the few edits in the film, but, for the most part, the entire film is one single shot, in real time, and the effect is staggering. The camera moves with the two soldiers, played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, as they navigate long, crowded trenches, ravaged countryside, bombed out towns and even rivers along their perilous journey. To say the audience feels like they are immersed in the action is beyond rhetoric here. Mendes puts you right behind and in front of them every step of the way, their point-of-view is ours. The horrors of war are seen up close, from the ground, in footsteps and dead bodies. The camera is not a passive observer, it is instead an invisible partner.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins is often called the greatest cinematographer of our time, if not all time. After having finally won the Oscar two years ago for Blade Runner 2049, after being nominated 12 times without winning, he may win again for his work here, as it is not only gorgeous, stunning and evocative, but it is absolutely breath-taking in its contribution to the movement of the story and to the overall emotional impact of the film. In addition to Deakins, production designer Dennis Gassner and composer Thomas Newman also add layers of bravura artistry to create an experience that will leave you breathless, heart pounding and absolutely emotionally wrecked by the end.
1917 is simply a movie that must be seen, and seen on the big screen. Mendes dedicates this film to his grandfather, who fought in World War I, and the film is not only an honorable salute to his memory and to all those who fought alongside him, but to all artists who use their medium to tell stories in ways that move, awe and haunt us. 1917 deserves its place in history, in more ways than one.