War is hell; we know that. But it can be difficult to portray on film the tension, the noise, the mud and muck and blood and guts of it. Saving Private Ryan (1998) made us feel bullets whipping by our heads during the Omaha Beach landing near the movie’s beginning; Das Boot (1981) gave us claustrophobia as we were trapped in a German U-Boat with dozens of sweaty soldiers.
Now director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) takes us to the Western Front during World War I as we accompany two young soldiers on a life-or-death mission behind enemy lines. Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) have been summoned to deliver a message to a battalion of 1,600 men several miles away. If they don’t get there in time, the entire battalion—including Blake’s brother—will be charging into a deadly trap set by the German army.
It’s not a new story: make it from point A to point B before time expires or everyone dies. Even the gimmick of having the story unfold in real-time has been done quite a bit. What makes 1917 unique for a piece of its scope and size is Mendes’ decision to shoot it as if it was filmed in one shot. Sure, Alfred Hitchcock did that with Rope in 1948, and, more recently, Alejandro Iñárritu did the same with 2014’s Birdman, but those involved relatively small casts and locations. 1917 is huge in comparison, both in scope and ambition. And it largely pays off with a journey that is sometimes terrifying, sometimes beautiful and always thrilling.
A good deal of the success of 1917 can be credited to the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, who finally won an Oscar with his 14th nomination for 2017’s Blade Runner 2049. The camera floats around the action, hovering over the cold mud, swooping down into the trenches and pulling back to show huge battlefields riddled with debris and destruction. From a hauntingly gorgeous night-time trek through a bombed-out village while flares float down, swirling the lighting around the remains of buildings, to a riveting ride down a set of river rapids, 1917 is one of the most visually stunning films of recent years. With a somewhat predictable story, the camera work is the real star, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if Deakins takes home the big awards yet again.
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