1917 ★★★★½

On April 6, 1917, German forces have retreated from the front lines in northern France to fall back on reinforcements, causing their rivals to believe that the enemy is on the run. Two ordinary British soldiers are tasked with venturing into no man's land between the trench lines and traveling on foot to deliver an urgent message to another battalion ordering them to call off a planned offensive so that 1,600 men will not be slaughtered in an ambush. Lance Corporal Blake, played by Dean-Charles Chapman, has an added incentive, because his own brother is one of the first wave of soldiers who will soon be marching to death's door. Lance Corporal Schofield, played by George MacKay, is more reserved and resentful of his part in this mission. During the hours that follow, these two friends are left to their own devices as they roam over hostile territory where deadly traps or gunfire are possibly waiting around every corner.

The 2019 war drama, 1917, which was co-written, produced, and directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall), who based the narrative on stories told to him during childhood by his grandfather, is a series of lengthy uninterrupted sequences blended together by sly digital trickery to appear as though they were all filmed in one single take. The end result, courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins, is a harrowingly fluid journey through Hell on Earth that plunges its two unprepared protagonists into an environment of stark unpredictability, where eerie quietness can be shattered by sudden explosions or violence. Thanks to technically proficient camerawork and to a superb music score by Thomas Newman, the horrors of World War I are now given a present-day audio and visual immediacy for contemporary audiences.

Unfortunately, the visual approach that stands as the most notable asset of this film also comes close to being its downfall. The extended takes call attention to themselves at every turn, often at the expense of character depth. At the same time, the premise itself is its own enemy, since the fact that the story will not exist if the mission of the two lead characters fails robs the film of a true sense of danger. Mendes and crew thankfully manage to pull some unexpectedly abrupt surprises out of their sleeves that I will not even begin to describe, but one cannot help but wonder what this screen tale would have been like had its subjects been given room to maneuver on their own instead of being figuratively and physically pulled along by the camera itself.

Even when its single-take techniques threaten to render it soulless, however, 1917 is an edge-of-the-seat endeavor for the best of reasons, that viewers will not believe their eyes. We are presented with grotesquely visceral scenes, including an early moment where Blake and Schofield find themselves stuck in a crater that actually consists of rotting corpses under the dirt, but we are also treated to moments of immense beauty, with a late sequence involving cherry tree leaves providing emotional resonance. Despite its cinematography selling point that promises a nonstop amusement park ride through carnage, the camera eye does take time to linger during some key moments. For that, our heart rate monitors are grateful.

This movie may not quite have the storytelling heft of better war films, like The Great Escape, The Thin Red Line, or Saving Private Ryan, but I have still never seen anything quite like it. For a brand new release in this day and age, that is an admirable accomplishment in itself.

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