1917: An Emotional and Immersive WWI Epic
I tend to assume the historical war movie is, if not a dead genre, one that is mostly played out at this point: contemporary entries are serviceable, but rarely much more. However, every few years a filmmaker comes along and does their absolute best to make me eat those words. Two years ago it was Christopher Nolan, whose predilection for temporal creativity turned Dunkirk into an anxiety-inducing tour de force, and this year it’s Sam Mendes, who similarly creates a tension-filled technical marvel with 1917. The key to Mendes’ film is that he makes it small. Not on a sensory level — this is about as big as it gets, with expansive vistas, exquisite sound design, and a beautiful, thundering score. Nor are the stakes minor, as the World War One-set narrative follows two soldiers who have but a few hours to reach the frontlines and prevent an ambush that will result in the death of over 1,600 men. Rather, the film’s brilliance stems from its narrow focus — these two young men aren’t in the midst of a massive battle, they’re making their way on foot through mostly abandoned swaths of the western front, made all the more terrifying by its emptiness. For the most part, enemy soldiers only crop up one or two at a time, and each gunshot shatters the stillness in a way that only heightens the tension, spaced out in a way that makes desensitization impossible. This concentrated approach also serves to marry real emotional resonance to the plot. There are several extraordinary action sequences, but Mendes makes plenty of time for quiet moments, offering his characters a (necessarily brief) respite from their burdens when it becomes clear they need it most. As our pair of soldiers, Dean-Charles Chapman and George McKay fully embody the roles of unheralded heroes, young men who will do what it takes because in the end they have no other choice — McKay in particular is incredible, with a perpetually haunted visage that nonetheless conveys the full range of emotion needed to carry the film. The cast is rounded out by a who’s who of British character actors, from Colin Firth to Benedict Cumberbatch to Richard Madden, most of whom show up in little more than cameos but still provide effective pathos and gravitas (once you get past the sometimes jarring nature of their familiar faces). But despite the impressiveness of the performances, the true stars of 1917 are two off-camera legends in cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Thomas Newman. Deakins, who won a long overdue Academy Award for 2017’s neon- and sun-drenched Blade Runner 2049, turns the single-take concept, too often a gimmick, into a virtuosic and exhilarating journey across a devastated landscape. Through his camera movements, the viewer joins Chapman and McKay as the third member of their frantic mission, never leaving their side as they venture into the unknown. Deakins’ photography, including a stunningly shot nighttime setpiece, is accompanied throughout by Newman’s gorgeous score, which ranges from delicate to bombastic — a symphonic masterpiece that may very well be the best of his career. The danger with undertaking a project this technically ambitious is that the style will overwhelm the substance, but Mendes and his team straddle that line with impressive panache. The end result is perhaps the most audaciously moving war film since Saving Private Ryan and an invigorating entry in a genre that somehow continues to surprise.