1917 movie poster | ©2019 Universal Pictures

1917 movie poster | ©2019 Universal Pictures

Rating: R
Stars: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden, Adrian Scarborough, Claire Duburcq
Writers: Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Director: Sam Mendes
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Release Date: December 25, 2019

1917 is a World War I movie that (we are told by a supertitle) begins on April 6. Two young British lance corporals, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are ordered by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to take a message across what until recently was enemy territory. It seems that a British colonel has mistaken a German strategic retreat for an opportunity. The officer must be warned that aerial photography has shown this is actually a trap. Blake is eager and resolute, especially as his older brother is in the company that may be ambushed; Schofield is more circumspect.

As WWI movies go, 1917 is respectful and feels realistic. The story is based on memories recounted by Alfred H. Mendes to his grandson, director Sam Mendes, who co-wrote the film with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Given the high degree of danger of traversing a war zone, we easily empathize with these two young men in their goal of surviving and reaching their destination.

1917 movie poster | ©2019 Universal Pictures

1917 movie poster | ©2019 Universal Pictures

Director Mendes has come up with a way to make nearly all of 1917 look like one long tracking shot. There are few obvious cuts. Mostly, we are moving ahead, behind and around the soldiers from start to finish. Mendes seldom employs the usual dodges of panning into a wall or other neutral, frame-filling scenery that can be used to disguise a transition (we do descend into blackness as characters enter an underground area at one point). The CGI tricks here are unnoticeable and ingenious. Cinematographer Roger Deakins does beautiful work, giving a dreamlike look to some of the nightscapes. Indeed, a run through the ruins of a city during a bombardment look almost hallucinatory, but we never lose track of the peril at hand.

The continuous tracking shot seems like a bit of technique for technique’s sake, but Mendes is also onto something. The continuous forward movement of the action gives everything a sense of momentum and propulsion. Nothing ever feels static or settled, because we and the main characters are always going somewhere.

The supporting cast has a lot of outstanding cameos, but we don’t spend much time with anyone except our protagonists. There is an appealing, warm bond between Schofield and Blake, even when they’re occasionally annoyed with one another. Actors MacKay and Chapman have a persuasive period feel without being stilted. Both of them deserve credit for undergoing what had to be some very arduous set-ups, even though stunt people are in there somewhere.

1917 fulfills most of what we want from a film. We care about its people, we understand its stakes, we believe in the world it presents to us. It may not tell us anything new about war or the people who fight it, but it also doesn’t tell us anything that doesn’t feel true.

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