1917 (dir. Sam Mendes, 2020) – Two soldiers are assigned on a mission against time to deliver a message that will stop their army from walking into a fatal trap.
War is hell, and 1917 takes no time to spiral into the centre of the inferno. An unbroken take soon fences us in with Lance Corporal Schofield (George McKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) in their race against time into no man’s land.
They look for cover, disoriented and exposed in the open. Just minutes ago, they had been idle on the field awaiting orders that never came. Now, they are within kill shot of unseen enemies, armed with a weapon each and no means of communications.
They have no reinforcement, but each other. The only refuge they have is in shallow trenches, strewn with bodies, their rot wafting through the stale air. All they can do is keep running, all to deliver an urgent message that could save 1,600 soldiers, including Blake’s own brother.
What follows is a bold cinematic experiment that truly understands the purpose of a long take. Atonement has done the same before stunningly on the sands of Dunkirk. Each bullet, movement, and sound had flowed all in fluid motion, as though we were thrown right into the action.
1917 is just as riveting an experience in all of its two hours. The choreographed warfare is beautiful to watch unfold against Thomas Newman’s gorgeous score. Its interspersing quietude stands out as absorbing moments of reflection. Above all, just two lads carry the massive film, invoking empathy in how incredibly real their characters feel.
Even so, the emotional aspect could not measure up to similar war films that delved deeper into their characters. The narrative of 1917 contrastingly begins and ends with a singular mission, its soldiers defined with stories gleaned from hints or a line. What means to be emotive is weakened in impact, because of how little we know of them beyond their names and that they had family.
Stranger still were the A-lister cameos, strategically scattered across the chapters. What is fun at first subsequently start to distract, a constant reminder that what we are watching, is cinema.
This complete antithesis to what the tracking shot aims to achieve, ends up with a film that feels hollow in its core. Only upon historical context and what we know of the battlefield can we feel the aching ounce of every soldier’s suffering.
What it lacks in narrative however, 1917 makes up for in its technical feats. Visually, it is a unique masterwork of mad ambition. The number of breathtaking shots are countless, displaying the sheer thought and innumerable rehearsals that went into each. The result is lavish. In his grand experiment, Sam Mendes has crafted a most visceral experience that elevates the art of cinema to new heights.
What 1917 accomplishes cinematically, makes any gripes with its thin narrative inconsequential.