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Josh Reviews 1917

March 2nd, 2020
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Sam Mendes’ riveting war film, 1917, takes place over approximately twenty four hours in April, 1917.  The British have discovered that a German retreat isn’t what it looks like but is in fact a trap being set for a large contingent of British soldiers.  With telephone lines cut and no other way to warn the 1600 British troops (the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment) who are about to walk into this trap, two young British soldiers are sent on a desperate mission to cross no-man’s land and tell the Second Battalion to call off their attack before they are annihilated.

Sam Mendes is an incredibly talented director.  I became an instant fan when I saw American Beauty in 1999, and I have enjoyed all of his subsequent films (with the exception of the most recent James Bond film, Spectre, which I thought was a huge letdown).  But, generally, I think Mr. Mendes has an extraordinary eye, and he can be counted on to create beautiful, deeply moving films.  1917 is no exception.

The film is shot to feel as if there is not a single edit made; the entire movie feels like one continuous, uninterrupted shot.  This is an extraordinary achievement, and I was continually impressed by the skill of Mr. Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and their entire team.  This is an extremely cool device; the result is that 1917 is an impressively immersive experience.  It’s a movie best seen on the largest screen possible.  We the audience feel as if we are right there with the two young men, Will and Tom, as they undertake their incredible journey.  The camera glides gracefully through the terrain, staying with the characters, and it’s as if we the audience are right there with them.  I can’t begin to imagine the complexities of staging and performing these lengthy, unbroken sequences.  The movie would have been great without the use of this technique; but it elevates 1917 into something truly special.

George MacKay plays Will Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman plays Tom Blake, the two men sent on this perilous journey.  Mr. Mendes made the right choice when he chose these two relatively unknown actors to play these roles.  This allows both men to be a type of audience-surrogate “every-man” character into whom the audience can invest.  But both men have strong resumes, and they bring great skill to these performances.  Dean-Charles Chapman played Tommen Baratheon on Game of Thrones (in seasons 4-6), but he’s grown up and I didn’t recognize him at all.  His wide-eyed, boyish face brings an endearing innocence to Tom.  George MacKay’s Will, on the other hand, looks like a young man who has already seen terrible horrors in war; he’ll endure more before the film is finished.

Several familiar faces are fun to see in their small supporting roles.  Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Kingsman: The Secret Service), Andrew Scott (Sherlock, Spectre), Colin Firth (A Single Man, The King’s Speech, Kingsman: The Secret Service), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, Doctor Strange) are all great in their short appearances.  Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) is also terrific in a small but key role at the end of the film.

The film is filled with stunningly beautiful imagery.  There are also some sequences of savage horror that are as viscerally intense and unpleasant as anything found in any war film I have seen.  This film packs a punch.

I’m impressed by the meticulous pacing and choreography of the film, as Mr. Mendes & co. take the audience along on Tom and Will’s dangerous journey.  The film makes strong use out of the geography of the terrain.  1917 doesn’t feel like two hours of two men walking through a similar looking landscape.  Very cleverly, every ten minutes of so, the film’s story takes Tom and Will into a very different-looking setting, from the trenches to no-man’s land to an abandoned farmhouse to a destroyed bridge, and so on and so forth.  This makes each new sequence in the film memorable and distinct.

War films are never fun for me to watch.  The horror is deeply unpleasant.  But 1917 stands among the best war films I have ever seen.  It’s beautiful and horrible and deeply moving.

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