1917 is a miracle in filmmaking. Never have I been so deep-seated in a journey through the shrapnel-infested bloodshed of war and my theatre chair at the same time. I blame it all on the camera work.
The camera puts you right there.
As British soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) deliver a message to higher authority to end an invasion against a retreating German front that will end up being a deathtrap for thousands, the camera follows their every move. We follow their every move. Through grimy puddles, carcass-filled craters, and skeletal town structures, we “walk” behind these men and see everything they see in a continuous shot of happenstance, action, and coincidence.
It is all too real.
I have so many questions and theories regarding when a shot began and when it ended. Except for one intentional and effective cut to darkness at the hour point, the movie progresses in real time, simultaneously exposing the actors and the audience to the surprises on the battlefield.
Rehearsals must have been hell.
As you can gather from the title, we are talking about a World War I movie, and although the historical allure might not be the same as a WWII flick (say, Saving Private Ryan), there are subtle, haunting images in 1917 that match even the cinematic genius of Steven Spielberg. The deathly quiet crawl through “No Man’s Land,” the distant fighter plane dogfight that comes way too close for comfort, and the timing of falling cherry tree petals on a peaceful river – these are all unfeigned observations in a cold, war torn setting.
The mythical but possible story of two brave men with a message to avoid the Hindenburg Line disaster (technically, German’s deceiving tactic, “Operation Alberich”) comes from Director Sam Mendes’ grandfather, Corporal Alfred H. Mendes of the 1st Battalion, who wrote several novels and short stories about his days in the trenches. Although Sam took some liberties with the two-person hero narrative, it is a historical fact that several waves of British armies were convinced they were defeating the retreating Germans and not walking into a more fortified German union. It is a fascinating turn of events, and with the Americans joining around the same time, it helped end World War I all together.
Sam Mendes might be best known for his work in American Beauty (1999), Road to Perdition (2002), Jarhead (2005), and Skyfall (2012), but 1917 stands out as a masterpiece of the ages for the ages. I haven’t been so moved by a film in a long time. I haven’t been so moved on a technical level, emotional level, cinematically, or even musically.
I have never been so moved to see a movie for a second time.
1917 ***** out of ***** (Groundbreaker Status)
1917 was released on the west and east coasts on Christmas day, so it is theoretically a 2019 movie. Regardless, this is the best film of 2019, and if it counts as a 2020 movie, it will most likely be the best of this year as well, and we just got started.