In Sam Mendes’ 1917, there are two battlefields in motion. First, a literal motion, as the audience is taken on a pulse-pounding survival mission over the course of a single day during the first World War, in which two British soldiers must deliver a message behind enemy lines. The second battlefield is one of emotion, as the toll this mission takes on our primary characters continues to ebb and flow into something more substantial and resounding by the final frame, making this one of the year’s best films, overall, as well as a stunning achievement for modern filmmaking at large.
The British soldiers we follow on this perhaps suicidal journey are played by Dean-Charles Chapman (Game of Thrones, Blinded by the Light, The King) and George MacKay (Captain Fantastic, Ophelia), who have to cross “no man’s land” during a German retreat with nothing but their rifles and their wits to aid them.
Each obstacle these young soldiers must face—from the corpse-filled sinkholes left by artillery fire to the hauntingly abandoned trenches dug in with booby traps—reminds of Inferno, with every tribulation escalating in both danger, tension, and horrifying revelation. Like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, the action never lets up longer than a handful of fleeting moments before the next crisis rears its head. And the entire film is shot to appear as seemingly one take, bending the rules of real-time physics in order to elicit the feeling of how war can effectively blur the senses.
What could have been a tiresome gimmick ends up becoming the film’s most transformative quality, elevated by the touch of a master in Roger Deakins as cinematographer. His films tend to favor moody atmospheres, in which danger can feel just as likely as safety, making Deakins a natural fit for a film of this subject matter and time period.
1917 is meticulously constructed to permit a sense of wonder so rarely seen by films in the age of computer effects, begging questions of how this was made and with what tools. There’s no doubt much of the technical wizardry can be explained away by CGI, but in the moment, these illusions serve the audience in how they can almost fully immerse and spellbind the viewer.
Sam Mendes co-wrote the film with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful), and much like his previous work, 1917 usually prioritizes its visceral set pieces over verbal storytelling. This can be an easy target for criticism when analyzing this film’s artistic value, but in a year (or even decade) filled to the brim with movies where dialogue is king when it comes to text, it’s refreshing to see blockbuster filmmakers letting the action speak for itself, and poetically so. The film doesn’t quite live up to the similarly surrealist scope in Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here, for example, which was ultimately a film with far more to say with its visual storytelling. But 1917 makes up for its simplistic, familiar message with tremendous execution just about everywhere else.
The film’s most notable performance comes from George MacKay, who lends his enigmatic quality as an actor to the character of Lance Corporal Schofield. His performance is so refined, in fact, it ends up illuminating one of the film’s only major flaws, which is the supporting cast. With perhaps two exceptions, the appearance of well-known British actors to supplement the checkpoints of 1917 are far more distracting than they are respectful of these actors’ pedigrees, as well as the narrative itself. Fortunately, this is only a problem relevant to 2019, not necessarily future generations who will enjoy the film out of context.
It’s become cliché for films to be regarded as “thrill rides.” The typical action movie tends to include a few set pieces that can reasonably be called thrilling, of course, but rarely has this frequently cited description felt more fitting than in 1917, a film that can evoke a genuine, physical reaction from its audience, which would be enough to recommend it as an experience worth having at the theater.
What makes the film truly special, however, is its more patient sequences when everything finally slows down, forcing the characters—and audience—to process what has happened thus far, then try to shake off the needed respite in pursuit of the next milestone, a wonderful and relatable parallel to how humans beings so often face the turmoils fundamental to modern society, no matter their background or familiarity with this moment in history.