1917 ★★★★

"Three years fightin' over this? We should've let them keep it."

So-called "experts" are predicting $25 million for this picture this weekend? Man, I'll take the "over" on that bet, as my sleepy town packed a theatre for sneak preview Thursday on a below-freezing night. I cheer all these dedicated theatre-goers in an age where half the people on this site steal every movie. Get bent, cheapskates.

Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins paired so well together in the excellent Bond flick Skyfall, but they outdo themselves in what amounts to the best war film of 2019, the stunning cinematic epic 1917. (Come to think of it, was there another war movie that was even any good from this year? A disappointing note, in retrospect, in an otherwise fantastic year for film.)

In the much-advertised trick of shooting and editing as if we're watching one incredible take, what is a gimmick every year or so goes far beyond that here, so much so that I can't imagine 1917 being filmed in any other fashion. As it's much more than just another war movie, this pulse-pounding race against time is also unquestionably one of the must-see cinematic experiences of the year.

Lance Corporals William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) serve in the heat of the action in northern France during World War I, April 6th of the namesake year. That day, General Erinmore (Colin Firth) tasks them with delivering an urgent message: warn the 2nd Battalion of Devonshire that their impending attack is a fatal error, and that the Germans have withdrawn only set to ambush. Blake is chosen as his brother is a lieutenant in this regiment, under command of Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch). The two young men are sent off, across No Man's Land and the abandoned German Front, towards the French town of Écoust-Saint-Mein, where they hope to arrive in time to save 1,600 men's lives.

Inspired by the stories of the director's grandfather, 1st Rifle Brigade soldier Alfred Hubert Mendes M.M., 1917 was co-penned by Mendes and Scottish screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns. In a deceptively simple story, soon it's clear that the film is much more than just the average war drama, as traditional adventure and action take a back seat to the incredible experience of the nearly real-time trek of the two corporals.

While the performances of those two young men, MacKay and Chapman, absolutely must be praised for the realism and heart they bring to their roles, you're here for Deakins. And the 70-year-old DP Roger Deakins outdoes himself here as he enters the fifth decade of his untouchable career. There are no parlor tricks here in 1917 when it comes to the cinematography and editing -- shout out to Lee Smith -- though it's fair to call it clever and inventive. You won't be sitting trying to analyze where the cuts must have been, and even if you do you'll see they are as seamless as possible. Birdman feels like light years away. A stunning technical achievement by Deakins and his team, immersing an audience into the immediacy of the story with agonizing tension, occasionally paused only for moments of heartbreaking drama.

The relatively straightforward plot brings the focus to those two men, and skillfully Mendes reminds us that war is indeed an army of one despite the calls of brotherhood and camaraderie that placate bloodthirsty tyrants to battle every so often. Each man can only save himself. War is hell, and in 1917 it's also full of mud and shit and guts and rats mucking it up. But never has brown been such a powerful color; I am still trying to figure out how Deakins possibly could have backlit those scenes. A particular night shot with flares, fire, and a wickedly tense chase will be one of the scenes of the year I'll never get out of my head. The orange hues and ethereal depth cannot help but evoke Apocalypse Now.

I have some reservations with the story. It's wildly implausible, mostly. Yes sure, possible, though obviously not this irresponsibly. Not like this, and not this recklessly. I know, Mendes' grandfather said so. Well, Sam, grandpa done lied to you. War stories, right? A hint of truth with a heavy dose of exaggeration.

But that small criticism can't hamper this excellent film, an awards-worthy bravura work by Mendes and Deakins, each firing on all cylinders here. Add in a reliably perfect score by longtime musical collaborator Thomas Newman, and while 1917 isn't necessarily an ethical dive into the politics and psychology of war -- though sit with it a moment and it'll hit you as it did me -- it's nonetheless a visceral story of heroism amidst chaos and brutality. You'll hear it in every review, and I'll say it again: you've simply got to see this on the big screen.

Added to The Best Narrative Films of 2019.
Added to 2020 Academy Awards nominees, ranked.
Added to Sam Mendes ranked.

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