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Sam Mendes has proven in the past he is a competent director incorporating a ton of high-quality technical aspects to his filmmaking. Take his most recent Bond entry Spectre which opened with a gorgeous tracking shot through the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico and had zero cuts. Sound impressive? Okay, now take that opening and apply it to the entirety of his latest feature 1917, a war drama made to look entirely like one long take. The result: one of the most immersive and impactful cinema experiences in recent memory.
As the title suggests, the year is 1917 and World War I has been raging for three years. Two young soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Game of Thrones) and Schofield (George MacKay – Captain Fantastic, Pride) are given the order to deliver a message to a distant battalion which will warn them of a surprise attack from the Germans. As the stoic General Erinmore (Colin Firth, one of the many British thesps that pop up for one scene) puts it: if they fail to deliver the message before the ambush then they will lose over 1600 men. So, no pressure then.
1917 is a terrific technical achievement. As stated above, the film is presented to look as though it was rendered in one take. While there are a couple of moments in which you begin looking for the secret cuts – mainly when Blake and Schofield descent into a darkly lit barracks – for the most part it is all astonishing to experience. In fact, almost all the technical aspects of this film are on point thanks to the fantastic work from two frequent collaborators of Mendes: Academy Award winning cinematographer Roger Deakins and Academy Award nominated composer Thomas Newman. It’s their work which elevates the sense of tension and dread which permeates throughout 1917. Just as the cinematography drops us into the trenches and thus, the horrors of war, so too does Newman’s score – at times pulsing and jittery but also bombastic and epic in parts.
This film will likely draw comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s 2017 war epic Dunkirk. One of the prominent reasons for this is how both substitute characterisation for spectacle. However, whereas Dunkirk had an almost experimental non-linear approach to its narrative, 1917 opts for a more sequential order in telling its story. You are given enough time with Blake and Schofield to understand where they’re coming from. That said, because of the lack of cuts, there really isn’t that much “downtime” where our heroes relax and discuss what they’re going to do once the Great War has passed. Instead, you are with these young men through thick and thin as you follow them through the muddy and corpse-filled fields of no man’s land, where anything could go wrong at a moment’s notice.
MacKay and Chapman do a great job in their roles and there is also the occasional familiar face – such as the aforementioned Firth – that pops up on screen. Without revealing who else appears in 1917, the effect can come across as a tad distracting – similar to when an AI rears their head in your video game to help you replenish your inventory. Thankfully, the actors don’t stick around too long, though the cameos do run the risk of taking one out of the film and thus, deflating the tension.
Nevertheless, 1917 should be commended for achieving what most war movies fall short in doing. You are thrown right into the chaos and much like our two young protagonists, you have no idea what is coming your away and you hope you’ll be able to see it to the end. Seek it out on the biggest and loudest screen you can find. It does exactly what Blake and Schofield are trying to do throughout the film: achieve the impossible. Mission accomplished boys.