1917 may appear branded as a gimmick film, making headlines for essentially being one long shot through the battlefields of World War I. Indeed, it could certainly be considered the biggest downfall of the film, being that it relies more on its atmosphere than the melodramatics or biting banter war pictures. But for being little more, Sam Mendes has pulled off a striking picture of great intensity, beauty, contemplation, and grit. For being little more than a ride, it’s the best of the lot and one of the most dazzling displays of filmmaking this year.
The story is somewhat simple enough to take us on a daring journey through dangerous territories. Two British soldiers (George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman) are assigned a task, informed by their superiors that there’s a surprise German attack on the other end of the battlefield. One of them has a brother he really hopes to save before the attack. It will not be an easy mission as they’ll be expected to traverse enemy territory, dodging everything from gunfire to attack aircraft. Aside from some surprise cameos from the likes of Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch, that’s about all you need to know about their mission.
What more you need to know about the film is the astounding cinematography by Roger Deakins. For a film that favors exceptionally long takes (though never just one throughout as some have said), there’s some amazing shots considering a camera that is constantly moving. The soldiers begin the film moving around the crowded trenches and there’s just enough room for some surprisingly good blocking. As the soldiers venture onward, they must wade through the mud of a land ravaged by combat, taking care to avoid the rats and crows feasting on the corpses.
Sam Mendes does a brilliant job of maintaining an air of tension throughout the picture. The tone starts off quiet and slowly grows grim as the soldiers edge closer to hopping onto the battlefield. There’s an eerie unease as the two soldiers march across bodies and possible traps. By the time explosives go off or gunfire breaks out, it’s sudden and pulse-pounding. There are small acts of heroism in saving soldiers and civilians, as well as somber breaths in between to give a break from the action. All of this leads up to one of the largest war scenes in recent memory of many soldiers lunging into battle.
This is the kind of film that brews astounding technical questions. For example, there’s a scene where a soldier hitches a ride within a truck with some other soldiers. We’re along for the ride as well but look where we’re placed. We’re directly behind the shoulder of one of the soldiers with their back to the side of the truck. Within the one-take format, how did the camera get there? There are numerous scenes where the camera seems to go everywhere, down into underground tunnels and underwater. I almost don’t want to know how these filming techniques were accomplished to still be amazed by what’s on-screen. That being said, I can’t wait for the lengthy behind the scenes videos on this picture.
1917 is an endlessly engaging picture if not for the tension of the war setting than for the mindblowing filmmaking. It touches on a lot of familiar war film cliches but gives them the most gritty and vivid of cinematography to make it stand out greatly from the competition. Mendes has turned out a real technical marvel that is sure to be a great companion piece to Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. While that documentary attempted to breathe life into those archival bits of footage from the war, this film slams us right into the frontlines where true terror lives.