The only thing more common than art that argues we should really stop doing war to each other is the fact that we seem to be constantly doing war to each other. 1917 is a visual protest poem that arrives in the United States amid substantial angst about yet-another impending Middle East conflict. Asking director Sam Mendes’s latest film to single-handedly prevent World War III seems like maybe a bit much, but here we are… Short of dropping average Americans into a war zone, nothing can drive home this unique brand of horror quite as much as movies can.
1917 frequently speaks the language of horror cinema, casually drops into an action-genre dialect, and fluently converses in arthouse. Unlike other single-take flicks—that means you, Birdman—its “one continuous shot” approach isn’t narcissistically gimmicky schtick. It actually logically complements the lithe story from Mendes and cowriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns. The result is a relentless, exhausting experience that barely misses being one of the year’s very best, mostly because it is pretty hard to say something truly new about how badly war sucks.
1917’s conceit is simple: Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are woken from a hungry slumber near the frontlines in France. They’re told that the Germans have faked a retreat and that a vast number of British troops are about to unknowingly walk into a slaughter. The pair have less than a full day to traverse trenches, creep through cratered cities, and convince a crazed Colonel (Benedict Cumberbatch) to stand his soldiers down. Basically, they’re doing all the things that military recruiters fail to mention when wooing children from America’s poorest families.
Though tinkered and tweaked, all the classic war cliches wink and nod here. Deathbed whispers are mumbled to absent loved ones in a film populated with reminders that powerful men have always sent young people to die for meaningless plots of land. What little unique perspective is offered comes from the wedded bliss of 1917’s one-cut contraption and Roger Deakins’s cinematography, a holy union where shadows come to life and dead bodies look almost graceful and scenic.
That’s maybe the biggest shock of 1917: it’s actually rather deliberate and pretty. Despite the film being centered entirely on a frantic race against time, Mendes pauses to contemplate cows and muddy puddles. He gives room for his actors, most notably MacKay, to become fully human. Too often, the patriotic support of troops is a faceless enterprise, the endorsement of an idea without an understanding that the “boots on the ground” are filled with feet attached to actual people. Most military films demand to be epic, but Mendes brings a microscope to a telescope fight. The result may not be all that original, but it is wholly effective.
It’s a good time to buy stock in war rhetoric. Pundits who couldn’t tell a Jeep from a Jellicle will be on TV arguing in poor faith about rich issues. For a loud film filled with explosions, this is a quiet reminder that such debates typically silence the very voices that are most used to shouting over gunfire; 1917 is quality soldier storytelling.
Grade = A