By Hector Valverde
There’s a brilliance to the simplicity with which Sam Mendes crafts his WWI epic, 1917. Mendes juggles some of the most impressive technical demands put into cinema in the last decade. The simple solemnity the story is told with batters the screen and soul with an affecting resonance that lingers long after the credits have rolled.
George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman lead as Lance Corporals Will Schofield and Tom Blake, two British soldiers tasked with delivering a critical message to another battalion across occupied northern France. Traversing through no man’s land at the mercy of enemy troops and the elements, Schofield and Blake race to call off an attack on German forces that would undoubtedly result in failure and over 1,600 allied deaths—Blake’s brother among them.
Everything in 1917 comes together to create an incredible cinematic experience that won’t be soon forgotten. MacKay and Chapman are excellent as young heroes; their sincere rapport and sense of friendship seamlessly extends onto the battlefield in a moving story about duty and purpose.
The legendary Roger Deakins’ cinematography—meant to look like two continuous long takes—is extraordinary. He moves the camera in ways and into places one would never think possible. The cinematography is graceful and flawless alongside Mendes’ urgent, high-octane direction and the huge, expansive practical outdoor sets. The film doesn’t even let you have a moment to think about how they pulled everything off—complete and total immersion fully take over. The clear-cut, single-minded simplicity makes the film’s narrative a thoroughly investing and engrossing watch, even more so as the creative team pushed cinematic limits to new heights.
Additionally, it’s a testament to Mendes’ vision how impactful the film’s punches hit. 1917 is directed with tonal expertise, grounded by the weight of its characters’ mission. When the film goes big, its moments never feel grandiose or like spectacle, just unnerving and dire. As dozens of corpses quietly bob in the water and the empty presence of a long-destroyed town takes over the screen, Mendes neither glorifies nor brings showy attention to these grim remnants. Simultaneously telling a story about the horrors of war with a universal touch that transcends beyond its historical and genre roots masterfully.
2019 movies feature a packed crowd in the acting categories, but the two leads stand out as some of the best of the year. Particularly the ever-dynamic and furiously dedicated MacKay, who is forced to inhabit the sparsely populated wastelands on the screen by himself for the majority of the film.
Cold and level-headed, 1917 is the war movie to end all war movies. On top of returning a long-unprecedented technical scope to the big screen, Sam Mendes’ film is a powerful portrait of family, bravery, and duty in the face of all the casualties war reaps.
For more current film and television reviews, follow Hector Valverde on Twitter @hpvalverde.