The “hook” of Sam Mendes’ new movie, 1917, is that it’s all shot to look like it’s done in one take. However, the most important thing to note is that this hook is no gimmick. In a story about the race against the clock, the one-take approach puts you in the psychological headspace of the lead characters and conveys the unrelenting march of war. By removing cuts, Mendes captures the cruelty and indifference of war, and how that contrasts against the humanity of those trapped inside of it. War is hell, but in 1917, Mendes is careful to show that the hellishness doesn’t turn people into monsters, and instead can show the best of a person, like trying to save a fellow soldier at the risk of your own safety. 1917 never glorifies war; instead, it takes on grotesque odyssey to make us experience its horrors while never losing sight of individual humanity. The result is one of the greatest war movies ever made.
Set on April 6, 1917 in the middle of World War I, British soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are tasked with a mission. The Germans have staged a strategic withdrawal to make it look like they’re retreating. This is a trap, and if a division containing 1600 men follows through on their battleplan, they will be slaughtered, and to add personal stakes, Blake’s brother is among those men. Blake and Schofield must race against time to deliver the message to Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to stop the assault or there will be a massacre of British troops.
Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins make us the third man on the mission. We are silent and we observe, but we are right next to Blake and Schofield on their journey. We witness what they witness, and it’s a world steeped in death and decay. Whereas a movie like Saving Private Ryan puts you in the middle of the violence, 1917 largely shows its aftermath of countless corpses strewn about the battlefield. The careful cinematography never lingers or exploits these deaths, but also never loses sight of what happened and that war has created nothing worthwhile; only blight.
World War I is one of the stupidest things mankind has ever done. At least World War II has the morality of stopping Hitler and the Nazis; World War I is a bunch of treaties kicking into effect and so millions of people die under mechanized warfare. It was stupid, pointless, nothing was solved, and 1917 has no patience for glamorizing this history. By making the film experiential through its one-shot camera, we’re placed in this hellscape and given a powerful anti-war message. We have the safety of the screen, but we must bear witness to what’s been lost. Blake and Schofield are on a mission to save 1600 lives and that’s important, but there are countless dead bodies on the way, and stopping this one assault won’t stop the war; you just do what you can.
The humanity is most vibrant in the lead performances. Although more famous faces like Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth make an appearance, this movie belongs to Chapman and MacKay, and they are astounding as two young soldiers. Mendes cast his movie well, going for two actors who look believable as regular guys rather than movie stars who are wearing WWI fatigues. We instantly buy these men as comrades who may not be the best friends in the world but are also in a situation where their lives are in each other’s hands. We want them to succeed not because they are “special” but because they are ordinary, and that ordinary humanity adds weight to all their actions.
We also can’t help but be connected to Blake and Schofield because of the immediacy of the action. 1917 is a technical marvel, and while Mendes has made some good movies in his career, this is arguably his best and most demanding. I would love to see a feature-length documentary on how they made this film. In an age where so much weight is put on CGI, the power of 1917’s filmmaking comes from analogue technology like timing and lighting. Again, 1917 succeeds in part because of its powerful contrasts. You have a setting showing the death and decay of war, but the filmmaking itself is an exquisite timepiece where everything has to work according to plan, or the shot will fall apart. The filmmaking has to be perfect to show Blake and Schofield trying to survive in a deeply imperfect world.
The craft of 1917 is stunning from start to finish. The pacing keeps you on the edge of your seat, Thomas Newman’s score is among his best as it balances melancholy with intense action, and not enough good things can be said about Deakins’ work. 1917 is a movie that works on every level, but it’s always to put you inside the war machine with the careful balance of keeping you captivated but never to make you comfortable with what you’re witnessing. War is a parade of horrors. It’s rarely been better realized.
1917 is now playing in limited release and opens wide on January 10th.