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1917 movie review: Authentic, Exhausting, Brilliant

Title:  1917
MPAA Rating: R
Director:  Sam Mendes
Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch
Movie length: 1 hours 59 minutes

Every so often, a war movie appears. It’s standard, annual film fare. We as an American audience seem to be fixated on making movies about the most traumatic wars in world history, as is only reasonable – the greater the pain, the more poignant the catharsis when we experience a well told story about it. At times, milking these real-world events can seem gratuitous, or edging toward “in bad taste.” Alternatively, a lack of exposure to the lessons learned via atrocities of the past only leads to repetition by the ignorant.

Movie poster for 1917

In the case of 1917, a World War I story told in real-time with the illusion of a solitary shot, I can only sit back and be amazed at the exhaustion and sadness it inspires through fantastic performances, gorgeous cinematography (Roger Deakins deserves an Oscar for his work here), and a great deal of respect for the grossly difficult and too easily forgotten realities of the time. In it you will see a tremendously well-made tribute to the young and downtrodden soldiers of England, the brutalized French countryside, and the dogged desperation of the German forces. There are scenes of landscapes, trenches, ruins, and battlefields that will stun you. I genuinely have no idea how some of the scenes were achieved. 1917’s attention to detail only serves to further immerse you into the dangerous mission that Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) take on: a last-minute race to warn a battalion of 1600 British soldiers that they are headed into a deadly trap.

It’s particularly meaningful to know that director Sam Mendes based the narrative on the experiences of his grandfather. Seeing extremely young men trudging through pits of mud, feces, bodies and rats is difficult, especially when we are offered no reprieve from it, in scene. Mendes’ commitment to maintaining the illusion of a single, unending shot is exceedingly effective. There is no shortcut through the grim realities that our protagonists face. 

It is best not to give anything away, but I must mention that there is a particular scene early on that is both heartbreaking and incredibly well done – hats off to Chapman, for his performance there. You’ll know it when you see it.

George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman in 1917 (2019)

Visually, this film takes great pains to highlight the simple aspects of wartime in the era by showing us the pieces that are as beautiful as they are terrible; Wide swathes of soft, green grass and fallen cherry trees, less than a mile from no man’s land. A crumbling city lit only by flares – my favorite scene in the film. A quiet gathering of battle-ready men in the woods, listening to one of their own singing a folk song before they head out into almost certain death. 

The culture of men in arms is something displayed with authenticity here, uncensored and accurate, even to this day. There is truth in the caustic apathy mixed with a platitudinal morality in the face of deep, constant, and exhausted suffering. Perhaps it is because I sat beside a veteran during my screening, but the comradery and despair shown on screen was particularly meaningful to us both.

1917 has a great deal to show about the frustrations and difficulties involved in lengthy chains of command and obedience without question, but it never deigns to question the necessity of them. These things are hard, and can seem to get in the way, but they exist for a reason. It doesn’t make suffering any easier, which is part of the inherent tragedy of war. This film is absolutely worth seeing on the biggest screen possible, and I would encourage viewers to leave children, and perhaps older veterans, at home. The frightening realness of the imagery may be too much for some, but it can’t be denied that this film succeeds in exactly everything it meant to do. 

Grade: A+

1917 is set for release on December 25, 2019 in the United States and January 10, 2020 in the UK.

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