Gripping WWI drama is also a masterwork of moviemaking
Starring George MacKay & Dean-Charles Chapman
Directed by Sam Mendes
In theaters Dec. 25, 2019
Sure, you’ve seen war movies. But you’ve never seen one like this.
Director Sam Mendes’ astonishingly immersive World War I drama, set in one 24-hour period, is filmed in what appears to be a “single shot” as the camera follows a pair of young soldiers on a perilous mission across enemy lines.
It’s much more than a gimmick—it’s epic, grandiose, spectacular filmmaking, which matches the story it’s telling: The two British lance corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, who played young king Tommen Baratheon on Game of Thrones) and Schofield (George MacKay) are dispatched by their general to deliver a message to warn unsuspecting front-line battalions about a German ambush set for the next day. It’s practically a suicide mission—lone soldiers sent across territory occupied by the German army. But if Blake and Schofield fail, some 1,600 troops will walk into a massacre.
And Blake’s big brother will be one of them.
The camera technique of following the doughboys makes you feel like you’re also along on their sometimes absolutely harrowing odyssey as they make their way across muddy battlefields, strewn with corpses of horses, buzzing with flies; crawling across bloated bodies of fallen soldiers; barely escaping with their lives from a booby-trapped German bunker; or dodging the crash-landing of a German Fokker, coming down in flames and headed right for them.
They never know what they’re going to find, or what’s going to find them, or even if they’re going to make it. And neither do we.
The single-shot technique is a marvel of craft, timing, coordination, prep and moviemaking (even though there are obviously a couple of editing “splices,” especially since a period of one day, then a night, then another day elapses in the space of a two-hour film). But it’s a jaw-dropping wonder to behold, and it absolutely hammers home the horrors, the terrors and the details—from maze-like, fortified foxholes to uniforms that appear totell their own battle-weary tale in their very threads and tatters—of what its characters go through. This is a war movie, yes, but also a gripping human drama, a bracing history lesson, a bruising survival saga and a blowout adventure yarn, and its production pedigree is impeccable. Mendes won an Oscar, for American Beauty, and directed two ripping James Bond movies, Spectre and Skyfall. Director of photography Roger Deakins is probably the best in the business. And Thomas Newman, who composed the original music, has been honored with 14 previous Oscar nominations, including his work on the soundtracks for Saving Mr. Banks, WALL-E, Finding Nemo and The Shawshank Redemption. In 1917, they gave out medals; for 1917, I predict Hollywood will be doling out other kinds of recognition, to honor this movie that dazzles on several fronts.
Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth and Mark Strong have small roles. But the movie belongs to its two young stars, especially MacKay in his breakout leading part, who shows the spectrum of raw emotion—including the wrenching beauty of selfless compassion—that the theater of war can produce, as well as the terrible toll it can extract.
As Schofield and Blake banter, one of the things that comes up is Christmas, and hopes of getting home in time for the holiday. It’s a theme that connects many a wartime film. Some 40 million people never made it home for Christmas—or anything else—from the so-called Great War, and 1917 masterfully reminds us of how something that happened so long ago can, and should, still hit so crushingly, achingly, painfully, movingly close to home.