This review is spoiler-free.
After a limited release on December 25, 2019, Sam Mendes’ World War I epic 1917 has finally opened widely in theaters across the U.S. After taking home two Golden Globe Awards — Best Director for Mendes and Best Motion Picture – Drama — interest was piqued over just what made this film an award-winner. And it earns its gold.
We see short cameos from many well known names, such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, and Colin Firth, but the film’s stars are two newcomers, Dean-Charles Chapman as Lance Corporal Blake and George MacKay as Lance Corporal Schofield, our two brave British soldiers who head out into the unknown to deliver a life-saving message to another British company deep in enemy territory. Should they fail, 1,600 British lives will be lost in a trap set by the German forces, including Blake’s brother.
While the plot is mostly fiction, the premise can be traced back to the old war stories told by Sam Mendes’ grandfather, Alfred Mendes — to whom the film is dedicated — and the tasks he undertook as a soldier in WWI. The original tale certainly got the “Hollywood treatment”, and 1917 is like many war films before it — the impossible task shouldered by a few that must succeed or countless lives will be lost, a turning point in the war, a hero’s tale — but it boasts a fresh new face, and it is in this detail that 1917 stands away from all those before it. And that is Roger Deakins’ seemingly impossibly done cinematography and the impeccable directing of by Sam Mendes.
The film plays as one continuous shot, wholly immersing you into this world. The intensity felt as you’re taken on this journey from the very start to the very end is almost suffocating, with no reprieve from the hideousness that was a reality for so many. From the claustrophobia of the trenches, to the facade of peace in the open countryside, the frames are visually stunning. The subtle inclusions of the casualties of war scattered throughout the war-torn lands only add to the overall eeriness of the film and quietly showcase the horrors of this time in history, and the film moves at a pace that allows you to see these things, notice them, and formulate emotions based on what it’s presented. You feel a closeness to these men that is missed in most films of this genre or subject, and the impending demises, their fears and doubts, and fleeting mortality are portrayed perfectly by every star, cameo, and extra.
Both in part to the story, the acting, and the cinematography, you’ll find yourself holding your breath through much of this film, sat in awestruck, panic as you watch our heroes battle through every life-threatening hindrance that gets in their way. MacKay and Chapman play our two soldiers perfectly, their character’s fears, compassions, and individual personalities not bogged down by any sense of duty or overplayed machoism. The cameos bring powerhouse additions to our two main players, namely Andrew Scott as the numbed, yet hilarious, Lieutenant Leslie, whose words get only more amusing as you watch his instructions and landmarks given to Schofield and Blake play out on screen.
This is a journey, both of mission and self. Throughout the film you learn more about Schofield and Blake, giving insight into those who risked their lives in this barbaric war, and that it spared no one. It follows a beautiful story, crescendoing in a haunting climax that will sit with you long after the film is over.
The most profound emotion perhaps was the yearning for the safety of home, despite being in my own hometown’s theater. In those brutal moments, where the mental torment that the filmmakers wanted you to experience takes hold, it’s hard to reconcile with the fact that what you’re feeling is no more than a minuscule fraction of the unthinkable longing, terror, desperation, and hopelessness those men — those boys — felt all those years ago packed into the trenches.
After taking home two Golden Globes, three Critics Choice, with nine nominations at the Academy Awards — including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography — 1917 is a win for compelling filmmaking, and proves that even in a war film, boundaries can be pushed to make something extraordinary.
1917 is the 2019 film that absolutely cannot be missed, and the theater experience should not be foregone.