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09 Jan 2020

A War Masterpiece: Sam Mendes' '1917' Is a Mammoth Achievement in Filmmaking

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Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay in 1917. Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay in 1917.

A couple of British World War I soldiers stationed in France face a harrowing time in 1917, a war action/drama from director Sam Mendes that is one of last year’s greatest technological achievements in cinema—and one of last year’s best movies.

Mendes—along with his special-effects team, his editing crew and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (finally an Oscar winner for Blade Runner 2049)—designed the film to look like one continuous shot. They do a seamless job, to the point where you’ll stop looking for the places where edits might be happening and just take the whole thing in. The story never suffers in favor of the filmmaking stunt.

Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are napping at the beginning of the movie. Blake is ordered to wake up and report to command; he takes Schofield along with him. The two pals figure they have some sort of assignment coming their way involving food or mail delivery.

That’s not the case. In a plot that reminds of Saving Private Ryan, Schofield and Blake get their unusual assignment: They are told to go beyond a recently abandoned German front line and reach the next British battalion. It’s up to them to save the lives of 1,600 soldiers, one of them Blake’s older brother.

The movie is set in motion … and it never really stops. Schofield and Blake venture into a body-riddled, fly-infested battlefield with little time to spare. Deakins’ camera follows as if you are a third party along for the mission. The result is a completely immersive experience. Lesser talents may have made a film with a first-person-shooter video-game feel, but Mendes gives us something that feels hauntingly authentic and very real. He paces his film masterfully.

Familiar faces show up along the way, including Colin Firth as the no-nonsense general who must use two soldiers to deliver his life-saving message, because the land lines were cut by the exiting Germans. Other officers along the way are played by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong, displaying varying degrees of regimental disgust and, understandably, only mild compassion. The actors all do a fine job of showing the frustrations that must’ve been grinding on these men.

As Mendes’ film clearly displays: World War I was awful and horrifyingly nasty. Captains stand in trenches weeping furiously as their officers try to advance. Sleeping soldiers are propped up in trenches, in such a way that you’ll wonder how anybody could’ve survived these conditions. Crashed pilots lash out at their rescuers. Rotting corpses float in every body of water the soldiers come across, be it a large pond or raging river. Large rats cause all types of mayhem.

Chapman and, especially, MacKay deserve credit for crafting two well-rounded, deep characters within this spectacle. Mendes and his performers achieve a nice balance of dramatic heft and technical wizardry. The story the film is telling is straightforward and uncomplicated, but it feels big and important, helped along by a magnificent score from Thomas Newman. Mendes, who co-wrote the film, dedicated the movie to his grandfather, Alfred, a World War I veteran. It was the stories Alfred told his grandson that birthed the idea for this movie.

The film 1917 is a mammoth achievement, and a fine tribute to the men who fought in the Great War.

The film 1917 opens Friday, Jan. 10, at theaters across the valley.

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