1917 Movie Review
In a rare humorous [admittedly morbid] moment in Sam Mendes’ stunningly entrancing war film 1917, star George MacKay slips and shoves his hand into the bloody, open cavity of a dead man lying beside him. The movie, like MacKay, plunges itself into you in much the same way, grabbing you from the inside and refusing to let go long after the end credits have rolled.
Shot as if to appear as one continuous shot for its entire two-hour running time, 1917 begins in a peacefully quiet grass field with two soldiers—played by MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman—sleeping under the sun. Within minutes, Mendes has these two running through No Man’s Land and infiltrating the German front in a desperate effort to save 1,600 British soldiers from massacre.
Mendes, aided by cinematographer Roger Deakins and music by Thomas Newman, proceeds to subject the audience to two hours of intense warfare, even though the movie never features a single, large scale battle. More emotionally charged than Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and yet thematically similar in its visceral, almost poetic depiction of war, 1917 is a mesmerizing, enthralling experience, even if its single-shot format also works against it.
Where 1917 struggles is in its ability to maintain a sense of believability as it operates largely in real time and yet covers nearly a 24-hour period, sending two soldiers across miles of terrain and experiencing all kinds of awful scenarios like some nightmare version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. By the end, our heroes have survived the German front, a plane attack, a war torn city, a waterfall, and countless other obstacles—for everything to flow together seamlessly requires a suspension of disbelief. Everything happens just a bit too conveniently, a bit too perfectly, for everything to make sense or at least connect together, and yet that is the corner Mendes paints himself into, a trap of his own making.
Even still, 1917 is a powerful film, oft beautiful, breathtaking, and unique. In one scene, the heroes awake to a nighttime hellscape of flashing lights and shifting shadows, a jaw-dropping moment that is equally gorgeous and terrifying. More importantly, the continuous shot effect makes for an unexpectedly intense, unique, and inspiring experience—while I didn’t find the rhythm as consistently relentless as I was expecting, minutes after the film ended I let out a deep breath I didn’t realize I was holding—Mendes and Deakins never let up and never let you go, all while Newman’s score hums and churns in the background.
1917 isn’t a perfect film, and yet it is one of the most staggeringly impressive accomplishments of the year.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.