"1917" (2019)- Movie Review

Written and Directed by Sam Mendes
Co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Starring George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman and Colin Firth

‘A Breathtaking Achievement’

Over the past decade or so, the war movie genre hasn’t fared so well. War films have long become a genre of the past. Not since 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan”, has a war film truly left a lasting impression with movie-goers. With their loud action sequences, formulaic stories and one-dimensional characters, modern war movies have become a chore to sit through. The problem is that the main attraction of these films has become the spectacle rather than storytelling. Filmmakers have sought to recreate the war using innovative techniques, but run into limitations of the medium. Nowadays, it is rare to come across war movies that are worth watching on the big-screen.

In a genre that has deteriorated over time, Sam Mendes’ latest film “1917” is like a breath of fresh air. A breathtaking, gripping and immersive war epic, it reinvigorates the well-worn genre. With his latest feature, writer/director Sam Mendes uses an innovative one-shot technique to craft an authentic portrait of World War I. Packed with gorgeous cinematography, impressive production values and powerful performances from the cast, it offers the prime example of an effective war movie. Although “1917” is undeniably a technical triumph, it is not a film without flaws. Its story is slightly formulaic, and lacks the strong character development of the finest films in the genre. That being said, it offers exhilarating entertainment that is sure to satisfy fans of the genre.

Set during World War I, “1917” tells the story of two soldiers that are sent on a deadly mission. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman star in the lead roles as Lance Corporal Schofield and Blake, two ordinary British soldiers that are assigned an extraordinary mission. They must cross over into enemy territory to deliver an urgent message that could potentially save 1,600 of their fellow comrades- including Blake’s brother. As time starts to run out, the soldiers soon discover that accomplishing this mission isn’t going to be as easy as they thought.

Writer/director Sam Mendes is no stranger to the war movie genre. His previous features include 2005’s “Jarhead”, another drama about the horrific realities of war. With “1917”, however, Mendes has crafted his first single-shot war film. It’s the director’s first stab at making a war movie that is filmed in one continuous take. It is a risky cinematic technique to employ in a war film, but Mendes pulls it off seamlessly. Working alongside acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, Mendes uses the one-shot technique to immerse viewers in World War I. It is hard to not marvel at the cinematography, which is captivating and arguably the main highlight of the movie. From intense close-ups to long, involving scenes, the cinematography transports viewers into the trenches of warfare. Mendes excels at recreating the setting of World War I, and his latest film is worth watching on the big-screen for this reason alone.

If the one-shot technique does not attract you to the theater, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “1917”. The film is extremely well-made, and features the most impressive production values that you’ll ever see in a war movie. From a technical standpoint, it is arguably the finest film that Mendes has made to date. The sets, locations and musical score are all smartly chosen, creating an immersive movie-going experience. Mendes proves that he has a keen eye for scouting locations. From the muddy trenches to desolate battlefields, each locale plays a key role in the events of the film. Moreover, the musical score is also worth mentioning. Thomas Newman’s haunting score is highly effective. It gives the film a sense of urgency and momentum that is missing from most war movies. Through awe-inspiring production values, “1917” keeps viewers engrossed in the lives of soldiers in World War I.

It is hard to not praise the powerful performances from the cast. Every actor gets the chance to shine and leave a lasting impression, but the film is mainly a showcase for its leading star.

George MacKay delivers a star-making performance as Lance Corporal Schofield. In his first ever leading role, MacKay proves to be a bonafide movie-star with a knack for playing heroic war veterans. It is not easy to get into the mindset of a tormented soldier in World War I. It’s an emotionally draining role that puts the actor through the wringer, but MacKay pulls it off effortlessly. With captivating expressions, he captures the courage, resilience and determination of a soldier on a dangerous mission. While MacKay isn’t well-known outside of Britain, this powerful performance will surely gain him the global recognition that he deserves.

The supporting cast is superb and also worthy of recognition. Dean-Charles Chapman is dazzling and captures the friendships that soldiers formed during the war. Colin Firth is fantastic and brings palpable tension to the film in his brief role as an intimidating war general. And finally, it is hard to not mention Andrew Scott. As a reckless war veteran, he brings hilarious comical relief and persona to the movie.

Although “1917” is undeniably a towering technical achievement, ultimately it is not a flawless film. If there’s one area where the film falters, it is in the storytelling department. The screenplay is slightly formulaic and arguably the film’s primary weakness. Sam Mendes’ decision to shoot the film in one take is bold and innovative, but it distracts from the story. Due to this technique, there are times when the film feels more like a video-game than a historical wartime story. Moreover, the film suffers from a lack of character development. The two main characters are stoic soldiers with dull personas. It’s hard to care about the characters when we barely get to know them on a personal level. War movies thrive based on the quality of their storytelling, and this is where “1917” falls short of greatness.

Nevertheless, fans of war dramas will definitely enjoy “1917” and so will movie-goers seeking exhilarating entertainment this awards season. An astonishing piece of filmmaking, it proves that war movies haven’t lost the ability to enthrall audiences. At a time when WWI is rarely depicted in films, it’s a rousing reminder that the stories of heroic war veterans are worth telling on the big-screen.

4/5 stars

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