1917 Reviewed: An Overdue World War One Masterpiece

Large scale intimacy may seem like a contradiction, but Sam Mendes achieves that rare blend in 1917. The director saturates his film’s audience in the horrors of World War One using a rare single-shot narrative. Because of this choice, 1917 is more of a psychological thriller than a traditional war movie. It is also the best epic to emerge from a year of  instant classic tales like The Irishman and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

Mendes directs this tale of two English troops delivering an order. If they succeed, they will prevent 1,600 men (including one character’s brother) from falling into a trap laid by a strategic German withdrawal. Relative unknowns George McKay and Dean-Charles Chapman play the two leads. Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, and Andrew Scott make cameos throughout their journey.

1917 is fairly comparable to 2017 Best Picture nominee Dunkirk. Both war films are less about lines on a map than placing the audience in the boots of its characters. Each dominated the box office by implementing innovative styles without significant screen time from A-list actors. Dunkirk features Christopher Nolan’s signature interconnecting timelines and large-scale filming to relay the intensity of the British evacuation. 1917 is a single-shot drama that downsizes the hell its protagonists experience from beginning to end.

One overlap between the films is their mutual editor: Lee Smith. Smith’s editing and the story from Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns combine to make the adventure saga a perfect length. Despite the superficially basic filming concept, the intense thriller never becomes monotonous and tells a fully fleshed out story.

Unlike Uncut Gems, whose intensity is fueled by two hours of yelling and spiraling decisions, the tone and pace of 1917 constantly shifts. The film is not just an action-adventure piece. Moments of compassion are included during the journey through battlefields, farms, and shattered towns. One of the most emotionally effective scenes occurs away from the trenches. An interaction with civilians shows the collateral cost of the War To End All Wars. Like many scenes in the film, it is crafted with a human touch that makes the movie more visceral than a linear retelling of the Somme.

1917 is one of three World War One-related films released within a year of each of other. Tolkien, 1917, and They Shall Not Grow Old all offer perspectives on a major conflict that is disproportionately unexplored in popular culture. The Axis powers have historically been an omnipresent foe in the box office. The consistent antagonist in these three films is the war itself. No judgment is passed, nor has it been necessary in any instance. Presenting these wartime events has been enough to satisfy a large-scale audience.

These less obvious stories require a deft hand to elevate the film. Sam Mendes achieves this with high-quality production and storytelling. 1917 is the complete masterpiece that fellow Best Picture nominees fell short of in 2019. It is also the long overdue World War One drama that Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line provided in 1998: an immersive viewing experience that gives greater understanding of a defining generational trauma.

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