1917

1917 ★★★★½

It is not hard to believe the scenario where Sam Mendes thought putting together a one-take war movie would buy him some serious film street cred, that makes perfect sense to me. After seeing the film though, I am much more inclined to believe Mendes when he says that it was an emotional choice. The film is not at all in service to the technical achievement: the achievement serves the story, creating a narrative push that is incredibly immersive. I wholeheartedly disagree with the notion that this is a gimmick film. It is not perfect by any means, but in addition to its many strengths, it has a final act and an acting performance that nearly convinces me that it is.

A good portion of the film is just watching people walk, so it is an absolute testament to the acting, the script, the music, and the production design that there was not one moment where I wasn’t interested in the action onscreen. I was a little wary at the start because I didn’t feel any real tension or danger, but that quickly becomes a non-issue. The only thing that didn’t work for me is how it worked out spatially, sometimes it was a bit too obvious that they moved from set piece to set piece, but that seems unavoidable with how it was filmed, and I don’t fault Mendes for it. There was also one scene where the dialogue seemed a bit forced, but Mendes and his writing partner Krysty Wilson-Cairns even manage to turn that scene into a positive by the end of the film.

As a whole, the film is tense, jarring, and impactful, and it certainly drew more than a few tears from me. It is also truly unpredictable; there were several moments where I nearly checked out because I thought I knew what to expect, but Mendes and Wilson-Cairns were extremely mindful of my expectations, and succeeded in throwing them out the window, ensuring that this is a singular work. Honestly, there wasn’t one aspect of the plot that I took issue with. Obviously this isn’t particularly realistic, but there is enough to cling to that allows you to easily suspend your disbelief. It may seem like a hand wave to explain why only two men are sent on a mission, but as someone who has seen the inside of the military, trying to get a large group of people to do anything would take forever, and it probably wouldn’t happen, and halfway through no man’s land someone would realize they forgot something and would want to go back, so in the interest of speed, sending two people makes complete sense. They also introduce an all too relevant theme halfway through the film, the idea that a military officer wants to attack just to attack, and I really loved that they played with that (just a quick plug that I need to get off my chest, one of the best representations of flawed military leaders in recent years is Sam Jackson in…wait for it…Kong: Skull Island, and if you didn’t understand his character than you are lucky because you probably didn’t have to work for the morons that I did…but I digress). And then again, Mendes and Wilson-Cairns manage to subvert the expectations of that confrontation, and give a truly insightful look at how wars at fought.

More than anything though, 1917 rests on the shoulders of the actors (and again, the fact that I’m not saying “the cinematography” should be a reminder that this is not a gimmick film). Dean-Charles Chapman is excellent as the heart of the film, but it is George MacKay that is the true standout. I don’t know what it is about MacKay and his face, but I could watch him run and bump into people for hours. He also had this excellent way of displaying frustration; he would always get this particular look on his face, then swallow it and continue on. A beautiful representation of following your duty.

Finally, the entire last sequence all the way to the end of the film…I have no words. I won’t spoil anything, but a key moment of it is given away in the trailers, and it was still one of the most bad ass things I’ve ever seen in a movie. 1917 is a technical and emotional marvel, and a beyond effective reminder of the horrors of WWI.

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