In the simplest of terms, Sam Mende's quiet WWI epic "1917" is a cinematic masterpiece, a near perfect war film that appeals to even those of us who don't particularly enjoy war movies.
The film is making waves with critics for its shooting style; Mendes, along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, shot the film in what appears to be one long continuous take. There aren't any staged close-ups and quick cuts, and the action plays out in real time; the camera dancing along with the actors through an impeccably laid out natural location that had production designer Dennis Gassner working with sprawling acres of land, creating the trenches and abandoned camps and running water which had to fall in line chronologically with the script.
To put it even simpler, this film is bananas.
Set in the Great War, "1917" follows the quest of two soldiers Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) who are given an impossible task: to journey through enemy territory and travel miles by foot to relay a message to a commander, calling off a raid that will send 1,600 men into a trap. Blake was chosen by the general (Colin Firth) because his brother is one of the men who would lose his life should they fail their mission.
The men take off, trudging through trenches and open fields, then through an abandoned German camp where a tripped booby trap causes the structure to collapse around them. Schofield is injured, but saved by his partner. The duo continue on their journey, each encounter with ghost buildings, crashing planes and foreign speakers proving to be more and more dangerous. Time ticks quickly towards the onset of the battle, and the British soldiers must dig within themselves and fight against all odds to save their fellow countrymen from impending doom.
The film builds slowly, the intensity of each new situation compounded by the scene before until it morphs into a full-blown thriller. For a film with such a simple and straight-forward plot, it finds complexity in getting the audience through the journey with only the charisma and physicality of two actors in uninterrupted action. We've seen films that things on such long shots done before; director Alejandro Iñárritu is notorious for them (please see "Birdman" and "The Revenant"). But combined with the difficulty of shooting exclusively outside, subject to the fickleness of the weather, natural lighting, etc. as well as a terrain that can accommodate the script, "1917" pushes the boundaries of naturalistic filmmaking.
Of course, Mendes didn't actually shoot the film in a two-hour long shot. He has said that takes would run up to eight minutes, and it was then the job of the incredible team of editors and visual effects artists to tie the footage together seamlessly. Regardless, the effect of this on the audience - by following our protagonists without break, witnessing their every move like you would with a stage production - is a nearly indescribable experience that has to be seen on the big screen. There is no question that such a film should be treated like an epic. The majesty of its aligning elements will be lost when viewed on a television.
With a supporting cast that also includes Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott, the film rests solely on the shoulders of Chapman and Mackay who have cemented their place as the George and Lennie of the war film genre. Both actors not only carry the choreography that such a production demands, but they do so with uninterrupted elegance and natural ease. It's not just their physical journey, but it's also their chemistry that keeps the film moving and prevents it from feeling long and drawn-out.
Through their eyes, we understand the themes Mendes wants to convey. The loneliness and senselessness of war. The fragility of life. The strength of human will to survive. He shows us these without dragging us through the mud of battle sequence after battle sequence or bloody, gore-filled frames.
There is plenty more to unpack with "1917", but it's best to witness the glory of smart, creative and immersive filmmaking for yourself. Cinephile and pedestrian filmgoer alike will agree that Mendes and his team revitalized the wartime genre and, in the process, conjured up inexplicable magic.