Review: Sam Mendes' exhilarating '1917' tackles familiar troupes with bold storytelling
Courtesy of Universal
Not since “Saving Private Ryan” has a filmmaker tried to upend conventional war movie standards with bold storytelling techniques. In Sam Mendes’ exhilarating new epic “1917,” a brutal and violent war drama, the action is presented in the lens of a single take. It never loses sight of the war, and keeps the bloody remnants in constant focus as we follow two soldiers on the front lines of battle in real time.
Things start out rather peachy, a pair of soldiers are resting in a field as a gentle breeze rolls by with the trees glistening in the sun, and it’s enough to help you forget about what’s waiting just feet away. As the duo are suddenly unleashed into the battlefield, the camera pulls back on Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his right-hand man Schofield (George MacKay in a breakthrough performance) as they descend into the nightmarish reality of their scenario. Loosely based on some of his grandfather’s old stories of the so-called Great War, Mendes crafts an interesting approach to the material in how the camera stays strapped on Schofield and Blake for most of the films anxiety inducing two hours.
The two comrades are tasked with what amounts to a suicide mission: Cross through No Man’s Land and deliver a warning about an imminent trap laid by the Germans. The clock is ticking, literally, as there are mere hours to accomplish the task, many of them in full daylight, and no one can say for sure what awaits the pair on their journey. We do know that if the message isn’t delivered in a timely manner, thousands of British troops will die (including Blakes’ own brother) and the Germans will gain a strong leg up on their enemies.
All the classic war movie cliches remain intact, chief among them the brother narrative used to build an emotional connection, and how it’s best to just shoot an enemy when you have the chance and not let them alert your position. But even those small infractions can’t ruin the visceral experience “1917” presents and the film seems destined to join the ranks of essential war movies.
Designed as a one-shot journey through utter brutality and showcasing the tribulations of World War I, Mendes’ latest takes a big risk with its storytelling tactic, as it follows Blake and Schofield during the entirety of their wild mission. Though the whole “single-take” concept is hardly new (“Birdman” used it just a few years ago), Mendes cleverly manipulates the idea into something fresh and engaging, offering a veil of unpredictability and cultivates real tension. The camera, of course, can only point in one direction at a time, and that’s the true test of Mendes big ideas. We can only see what he wants us too, and in a war loaded with so many unknown variables, you’re unsure what’s waiting around the corner.
So the key is making sure that everything in the frame is important and deserving of being there, and give credit to production designer Dennis Fassner, and composer Thomas Newman for turning in a brilliant and effective score, but the biggest round of applause is allotted to Oscar winner Roger Deakins gorgeous cinematography, who shapes his frames into a startling revelation. He crafts many signature moments worth of the “one-shot” canon, and continues to prove his worth as the quintessential cinematographer in the business. This narrative tactic also allows for brief cameos from Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch who show up at different stages of Schofield’s journey, while outlining a look at how different each soldier is.
Yet if the film is destined to make anyone a star, it’s MacKay, who has long been the poster child for small independent films, and is dutifully promoted to lead status, if only because it gives the British actor his most adult role to date, and relies heavily on his facial expressions to help sell the turmoil he’s presently caught in.
Sure, “1917” is beholden to its predictable narrative framework, except Mendes is strategic enough in his layout and design to try and buck the normal conventions associated with these films. It doesn't always work, as the director and his co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns occasionally try to halt the action by injecting a moment of solitude which, as a result, only dampens the momentum carrying the film to the finish line. With such minimal time to tell the story, taking such detours only takes away from the mission.
Thankfully, Mendes finds plenty of success in other avenues, which will inevitably force “1917” into a few different conversation circles. Is it the best war movie since “Saving Private Ryan?” probably, and “Do you think it’ll get nominated for Best Picture?” Most likely. The real intrigue of “1917” is watching these characters battle with their surroundings and their willingness to keep moving.