1917 is a powerful drama, an accurate historical representation, and a technical marvel all rolled into one. It's something of a cliché to say a war movie “puts you right on the battlefield.” In this case, though, that's sort of true. Via Roger Deakins' masterful cinematography and skillfully-executed hidden editing courtesy of Lee Smith, the film gives the appearance of having been completed in one long, unbroken shot. (With one intentional, and staggering, exception.) Together with director Sam Mendes (Skyfall), they deliver a nerve-rattling experience that provides the sensation that you're making a perilous journey with the main characters.
The set-up is presented right at the top. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) brings in two soldiers, Lance Corporal Schofield (Ophelia's George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), to receive an order. They are to head into enemy territory and deliver a message to Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), instructing him to call off a planned troop advancement. If it takes place, 1,600 men, including Schofield's brother, will be walking right into a trap.
The rest of 1917 details what happens as the men make this trek. The film plays out in real time, so we watch as they climb out of the trenches and onto the battlefield. Sections are just them crawling through barbed wire or stepping over the bodies of fallen comrades. Schofield and Blake must be constantly vigilant, because they don't know if the enemy is waiting to shoot them. That creates suspense in addition to atmosphere.
Periodically, a danger becomes far more evident. 1917 has several action scenes that are fry-your-nerves intense. One involves a dogfight taking place above the men's heads, while another is set inside an underground bunker and features a very regrettable run-in with a rat. (No exaggeration, I jumped halfway out of my seat.) Other scenes of this nature come at regular intervals. Mendes takes them seriously. He's not trying to offer cheap thrills, but rather to invoke the sense of fear that comes from war, specifically the knowledge that one's life could end suddenly, at any moment, and you might see it coming or you might not.
As the movie progresses, we come to know Blake and, especially, Schofield. Intermittent interludes find them discussing their lives and their situation. There's a touching sequence about three-fourths of way through involving a young woman and a baby that reveals the horrors of war have not hardened Schofield's heart. Emotional beats like these ground the film, reminding us of the human side of war. MacKay is excellent. He doesn't give a showy performance, he just perfectly conveys the panic Schofield feels as he tries to get the message delivered on time to prevent a catastrophe that would impact him personally.
The real-time, one-shot approach may seem like a gimmick on the surface. It's not. The style fills 1917 with a sense of immediacy and urgency, so that the danger of the mission is palpable for every second of the running time. Deakins' camera glides so smoothly that you stop being aware of the technique because you get so thoroughly sucked in. And since Mendes can't rely on the usual editing tricks to create tension, he has to stage the action sequences with as much authenticity as possible, which further ratchets up the suspense.
1917 is more than a film, it's an immersive experience that leaves you exhausted when it's over, in the best possible way.
out of four
1917 is rated R for violence, some disturbing images, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.