War movies are generally not something I gravitate towards. I recently took my father to see Midway, and was relatively disengaged by every possible element. I’m still ridiculed by certain friends for falling asleep during an IMAX screening of the critically touted Dunkirk two years ago. A war movie has to be doing something to right the wrongs of history, like Tarantino did with Inglourious Basterds, or it has to do something that feels incredibly fresh and staggeringly alive. And luckily, that’s precisely what we have with Sam Mendes’ 1917.
Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are two young British soldiers fighting at the height of World War I, who just want to see their loved ones again once all of this is over. One day, they are given an order to cross enemy lines and deliver a message that would save thousands of lives. We follow them through the trenches as they race against time, faced with impossible circumstances.
1917 is a breathtakingly visceral experience and a remarkable technical achievement. Shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, the whole film is designed to look like one or two continuous tracking shots. It cuts about midway through the film, and if you’re paying attention, you can tell where two shots were edited together in a few places, but this is mostly seamless in the most breathtaking way. This is what Emmanuel Lubezki won an Oscar for in Birdman, which was considered experimental when that film was released. In a film about the horrors of war, this seems like a far more tremendous undertaking.
As we’re following these characters, there are enemies and land mines and all kinds of hidden elements threatening their lives in every corner of the frame. And even though the scale of this film is enormous, there’s a startling intimacy that is so absent in war movies. This is why I tend not to connect with these movies. A war movie is usually more interested in showing the larger effect of war, and not what effect those horrors might have on the individual. 1917 follows two characters the entire film, and even though we don’t have much back story on them, we don’t need it. Who you were before doesn’t matter. It’s how you can save your own life and get back to the people you love. The immediacy of this is never forgotten the entire film. We see every atrocity of war from a very specific vantage point, and as a result, we deeply care about what happens to these two characters.
We mainly follow Schofield’s point of view, and George MacKay delivers a star-making performance. He’s popped up in British film and television projects in the last few years and delivered some fine performances, but this is the one that will truly put him on the map. This is a role that demands everything of its performer, and MacKay is prepared for every part of this grueling journey. He has to show strength, vulnerability, charm, ruthlessness and determination, often simultaneously. And MacKay gives us a reason to really care about Schofield’s journey.
We also have people like Colin Firth, Richard Madden and Benedict Cumberbatch pop up in very small supporting roles. Perhaps it’s dishonest of the marketing to show these people front and center, because this is one of those films where you only get a few minutes with each member of the supporting cast, because the lead character’s journey has to progress and move forward beyond what’s happening in one corner of the battlefield.
This is a well-acted and emotionally stirring story to experience, but the real reason to see this movie and see it now in the theater, is the breathtaking filmmaking on display from every imaginable angle. As I’ve said, the cinematography should win Deakins another Oscar. A scene involving MacKay running through the burning rubble of a destroyed building at night, is one of the film’s most dazzling and heartbreaking sequences. Composer Thomas Newman has been nominated for 14 Oscars and has never won. I feel comfortable predicting this might be the one to finally land him the trophy.
In conclusion, 1917 is, in every possible way, one of the finest films of the year. It’s a stunning technical achievement and haunting emotional journey that is thrillingly intense from beginning to end. This is a film to see in IMAX or a Dolby Cinema, or in the largest format you can find, in a theater with great sound. 1917 will be remembered as one of the all-time great war movies, and as a highlight of Sam Mendes’ impressive career.