Fresh off its wins at the Golden Globes, 1917 launched into its wide theatrical release, becoming a major subject among moviegoers and recently securing ten Academy Award nominations, deservedly so. The newest venture from director Sam Mendes holds itself to the highest technical standard and proves to be a visual experience that demands to be seen on the big screen.
In modern cinema, World War I can be considered the older sibling, often overlooked and given far less attention than the younger sibling World War II. 1917 explores a small corner of this war without explicitly dealing with its happenings and larger implications. The film isn’t necessarily based on true events but can be considered as an amalgamation of various stories and soldiers, represented onscreen by the two main protagonists, Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George Mackay). We follow them as they journey into dangerous territory beyond enemy lines, tasked to deliver a message to prevent an advance of a British battalion who would unknowingly be walking into a massacre. The stakes are established immediately: the lives of sixteen hundred men, including Blake’s brother, are on the main protagonist’s shoulders, his mission constrained by the time of a single day.
Mackay manifests a gripping performance in a physically demanding role and grounds the film amidst the action. The choice to focus on ordinary soldiers and casting relatively new faces in a big studio film was a risky and deliberate one that ultimately pays off in enhancing its small but important thematic exploration. The roles of high-ranking officers are relegated to well-known actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth, but they only appear in fleeting moments.
1917 is a truly immersive experience, boasting technical virtuosity to the credit of master cinematographer, Roger Deakins. The riveting display of action and movement is one that can only be preceded by months of preparation, storyboarding each shot and hidden cut, as well as rigorous on-set rehearsals to perfect longer takes. The collaborative work put into the production transcends beautifully onto the big screen as one continuous shot, following the soldiers in real time through constantly shifting terrain. The visual feat is accompanied by a haunting score from composer Randy Newman, filling the story with anxious notes and dramatic crescendos.
The visual dynamic onscreen is compelling enough for the audience to brush off the surface level character and plot development, which is not something 1917 needs to worry about for it to be a brilliant movie.
Certain nuanced scenes touch upon the futility and tragedy of war ,which rests heavy on the backs of soldiers who are mere cogs in a war machine. Despite knowing very little about our protagonists, the performances are enough to capture the audience and make us root for the underdog characters.
In its entirety, 1917 is a stunning display of what can truly be achieved by the cinematic artform and is an experience that should not be missed in theaters, the way it was intended.