“1917” is far and away one of the most refreshingly grounded and unique war movies I’ve seen in a long time. The idea of a one-shot war story is ambitious to say the least, but Sam Mendes manages to pull it off in a way that’s neither pretentious nor feels like it’s overcompensating for lack of a better story. At its core, 1917 is actually an extremely simple movie: two WWI British soldiers are tasked with delivering a letter to call off a fellow company’s assault scheduled to take place the next morning. From the very start of their journey across British territory and into the German frontline, I was hit with an immediate post-apocalyptic “Lord of the Rings” vibe in which these two unlikely heroes must stick together through all manner of challenges in order to reach the proverbial Mount Doom at what feels like the other side of the world, despite just being a few miles down the road.
The one-shot style of the film really helps cement the feelings of constant stress, anxiety, and exhaustion experienced by soldiers on the frontline, portraying it so clearly and vividly to the audience that I was actually starting to feel the stress of our protagonists myself near the movie’s midpoint. Combat is an environment in which you’re never really allowed to fully “switch off” your survival instincts, and as our characters moved further and further from friendly territory, the uncharted labyrinths and scorched woodlands of the German-controlled countryside started to feel more alien than anything resembling a human encampment. Abandoned artillery nests surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of spent shell casings and abandoned tunnel networks containing booby traps and corpses created an overwhelming atmosphere of hostility. If you’ve ever wanted a movie to allow you to relive your experiences as a child sneaking around the forbidden interior of your school after dark, 1917 is probably as close as you’re going to get.
The cinematography of this movie is some of the best I’ve seen in years, with every single new area our characters trudge through absolutely packed to the brim with little details and implied narrative. I was honestly amazed at how each location could look so distinctly different from one another despite the entire film taking place within a relatively small area of French countryside. Lighting and atmosphere play a huge role in the immersion of 1917, and everything looks and sounds totally authentic to the setting. The whole movie has that special “lived in” quality to it, making every destroyed building and muddy foxhole feel as though it was there before the filmmakers even arrived.
However, despite all these accomplishments, 1917 does fall short in a few areas, primarily its use of music and its unfortunately spoiler-filled trailer dampening the impact of the final act. While the movie does contain a few major surprises that I won’t ruin for you, I can safely say that you will enjoy this movie much more if you haven’t seen the trailer already. I know that’s probably easier said than done but the variety of locations used in the promotional material made it impossible to feel any real tension near the conclusion of the film, as I had already seen multiple events that had not yet appeared, making it fairly obvious that they were going to be used in the last 15 minutes of the movie. This was extremely disappointing to me, as the story does take a few unexpected turns early on but quickly runs out of gas near the halfway point, as you start to realize that you’ve pretty much already seen the conclusion of the film in the trailer.
Another aspect that was fairly hit-or-miss for me was the usage of music, particularly in one scene in which one of our protagonists is running for his life while an overly-dramatic orchestra piece swells whimsically alongside the sound of bullets whizzing by our plucky British soldier’s head. For a film so dedicated to immersing the audience into the headspace of a soldier fighting in WWI, the use of music during certain scenes definitely took me out of that experience. I also found that the one-shot style of the movie was somewhat limiting narratively near the last 2/3rds of the film, though this was primarily due to the fact that I had mentioned previously about the trailers unknowingly spoiling major plot points.
Overall, 1917 is still a triumph of a war movie and proves there’s a modern audience for grounded, brutal, unapologetic depictions of war and all the misery that comes with it. While it has relatively few “action” scenes for a war story, the constant dread and overwhelming feeling of “we don’t belong here,” combined with its beautiful visuals and unique one-shot style makes it an early contender for one of the best movies of 2020. It isn’t weighed down by cliché overly-dramatic plot lines or unnecessary character drama and instead just sets out to tell a simple story about two men with a job to do and all the hardships along the way. It’s straightforward, immersive, and doesn’t drag its feet to make its point.
8/10 – Great