1917 review by Mark Walters – Sam Mendes crafts a superb story of a desperate World War I mission

1917 review by Mark Walters – Sam Mendes crafts a superb story of a desperate World War I mission

It seems like we get a few movies every year about World War II, sometimes big Hollywood epic productions, or perhaps just a quiet character piece fit for an art house release. A great example of this in 2019 is contrasting the quirky JOJO RABBIT and the bombastic MIDWAY, both good films in their own right. But World War I is a subject that is tackled much less frequently on the big screen, which is unfortunate. It’s an important part of our history that deserves proper remembrance, and at times feels like its overlooked in history lessons. The new movie 1917 takes us into the trenches in an intimate and intense way, thanks to acclaimed filmmaker Sam Mendes, and the stunning cinematography of Roger Deakins. It’s also shot to look like one long continuous shot, although there are a few cleverly disguised edits within. While there are some recognizable names here and there in the movie, they’re used sparingly allowing the script (by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns) and overall immersive experience to shine.

The story follows two young privates in the British army who are tasked with delivering an important top secret message to a key battle point, which requires them to travel together without assistance through enemy territory and devastated battle zones. If they fail, it could mean the deaths of 1600 soldiers on their side, and one of them is a brother to one of the soldiers, making this personal. Their journey will test their friendship and bravery, and put them up against incredible odds.

War films have a tendency to be big and loud, and sometimes feel like they’re trying to wow the audience with pyrotechnics and loud noise. While 1917 has some intense moments for sure, it never feels flashy or over-dramatic, rather more sincere and intimate in its exploration of the two unlikely heroes. It’s also filled with tension and dread, extremely engaging and powerful in its presentation. As the two soldiers (played masterfully by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) walk through quiet fields, obliterated by canon fire and riddled with rat-infested piles of dead bodies, the deadly silence is horrifying and haunting. When they do come in contact with gunfire or explosions in the distance, it’s almost a relief as at least they can see the enemy and know what’s coming.

Sam Mendes takes us deep into the broken souls of these hardened soldiers, filling the battle trenches and knowing there is little hope, but they must continue to fight in spite of it all. It’s also heartbreaking seeing our two lead soldiers taking on this mission without help, and unable to tell fellow soldiers they encounter how urgent their journey is. While the “one long continuous shot” aspect of the film is quite impressive, the movie works well as it is drawing in the audience and keeping you captivated with what is happening at all times. The idea of death potentially lurking around every corner is conveyed well, and makes this feel like one of the more honest war films we’ve seen come out of a major studio in a while. Familiar faces like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden and Mark Strong are peppered throughout the story, but are more like cameos than leading roles, which actually works well so as not to distract from the story too much. I imagine this is a hard film to get a studio behind, especially when your two leads are fairly unknown, but kudos to Universal for getting behind it.

If you’re fascinated with the history of the First World War, this is definitely worth a look, and does a fine job showing what these men bravely went through. If you’re into big Hollywood war movies with lots of action scenes and explosions, this isn’t that. I found 1917 to be a very refreshing and important piece of cinema in a time where movies like this are getting harder and harder to make. It’s masterful and haunting, even the powerful score by Thomas Newman will almost make you cry in its beauty. This is without a doubt one of the best films of the year and deserves to be seen, if for no other reason than it being historically important and valuable. It’s also one of the most impressive technical big screen achievements of 2019, breathtakingly brilliant is just about every way.

1917 opens Christmas Day 2019 in select theaters, expanding on January 10, 2020

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.