By JT Harrell (Portland, OR)

 

As 1917 winds down from its opening weekend and winds up with a mediocre box office pull, those who did go see the film are breathlessly telling others they have to do the same. If I wasn’t writing this, I’d be gasping right alongside them. And that’s not just because of the movie’s incredible directing, cinematography, production design, and music; it’s because, while the cinematic achievements are something to marvel, the film’s heart is a unique thank you to all who have marched through the trenches of war.

The film opens on two soldiers in full WWI gear sleeping in tranquil, green countryside. An officer appears, tells one of the men – Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) – to pick a man and report to the General. There’s a mission waiting. The officer disappears, and Blake unsurprisingly picks Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), who’s napping nearby. The two young men walk and talk, chatting like friends, until they reach the General’s station where – with a flurry of soft-spoken, straightforward sentences – General Erinmore (Colin Firth) informs Blake that his brother is part of a 1600-man platoon walking into a German trap. Those men, Blake’s brother included, are likely to be killed if Blake and Schofield do not deliver orders halting the attack to the platoon’s Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch). But to do that, the two corporals must trek into and through enemy territory.

Blake barely bats an eye. It’s his older brother. He’s ready to go immediately. Schofield, on the other hand, wants details, a strategy. What’s the plan? Too late – Blake’s already marching through the trenches.

And that’s the story. The characters have been introduced; the course has been set; the goal has been established. In less than 10 quiet, unassuming minutes, the movie is in full swing, and viewers are asked to sit back and enjoy the ride. But from first mention of frontline, that’s nearly impossible to do because director Sam Mendes and his team present a “real-time” film filled with one surprising, gasp-worthy turn after another as the two corporals are thrust into breathtaking settings of muddy swamps littered with dead soldiers, green fields dotted with murdered animals, and a graveyard of cherry trees. Just to name a few. These scenes are depicted in detail so vivid and textured that they literally leap from the film, take hold of you, and pull you in, creating an immersive experience similar to Saving Private Ryan‘s  storming Normandy minus the whirlwind of bullets, explosions, and body parts. In lieu of that chaos, Mendes opts for a more controlled but still quick pacing held in place by impeccable blocking, planning, and DP Roger Deakins’ unbelievably smooth camera tracking.

Deakins, in fact, might be doing the best work of his career here, work so good that one could argue it’s distracting from the film itself because there are several moments when you simply can’t help but wonder, accidentally and probably out loud – “How the hell did he manage THAT?” But then the camera pushes on, sweeping you along until you find yourself mesmerized by an angry-orange fire raging in the far distance as flares arc across the night sky, throwing bright light onto barely-standing vestiges of exploded city buildings, and creating shadows that float across the ground like long, slowly moving skeleton fingers. It’s the most beautiful series of shots in the film, and the beauty is further expounded by Thomas Newman’s score, which swells and swirls like Wagner’s first cycle as those skeletal fingers slide by and the distant, raging fire gives the impression Hell has bubbled to the surface of Earth. And right into this Hell dash our characters as Mendes forces them to confront obstacle after obstacle, difficulty after difficulty, until the only thing pushing them forward is the sheer will and determination to succeed despite exhaustion and desperation because human life is at stake.

And that’s where the film’s heart comes in. Mendes is working in top form, exercising his talents as a director to put together a stunning piece of visual entertainment. He places us right onto the shoulders of everyday soldiers as they confront danger after danger but still make decisions that throw them directly into a machine of life-threatening peril. And as we experience those perils together with the soldiers, as we follow on the heels of our protagonists via Deakins’ fluid and close tracking camera, as we hear gasping and splashing as dead bodies floating in a river are floundered over, as the “one-take” approach leaves us without chance for reprieve, we find ourselves acutely experiencing the same pain, suffering, and anguish being endured, morphing the film from a realistic portrayal to a mutual experience of war’s relentless brutality. Such an experience is a sure way to immerse audiences, and once the film is over, one really can’t help but think – “I don’t know if I could have done ANY of what those characters just did.” This is a powerful way of showcasing the men and women who did, do, and will do in real life, in real war, the things just seen on screen, and I think there is a resounding sense of gratitude behind that showcase. A sense of gratitude that sharpens 1917 into the great film it is, and also a sense of gratitude I couldn’t help but acknowledge and share as I walked out of the theater, breathless.

Rating: 5/5

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