This is Roger Deakins’ world, we’re all just living in it.
“1917” tells the story of two young British soldiers in World War I (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) who must make their way across the German front in order to deliver a message before an ill-fated attack. Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch also star as Sam Mendes directs, based on stories his veteran grandfather told him.
We get war movies every year, but usually they focus on World War II or the Middle East. Last winter we had Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old” documentary about the First World War, which saw color and sound added to old video and photos. “1917” takes place in the year it implies, and its big selling point is that it is shot to look like it is all happening in real-time, in one continuous take. And even when the story may be simple and straightforward, the sheer scope and attention to detail keep you immersed.
“Dunkirk,” the Christopher Nolan film from 2017, was championed for its practicality and dedication to craft over stylized special effects, and that is what is the case here. Mendes and his team put you into the boots alongside the two troops, and you feel the tingle of every rat that crawls by or squish of mud that is stepped in. They also use background actors instead of green screen (the climax features the use of 500 extras running around), so things feel real instead of manufactured in the Hollywood machine.
Roger Deakins is one of the best cinematographers of all-time (and finally won his first Oscar for “Blade Runner 2049”), and he teams back up with Mendes after the pair shot the James Bond film “Skyfall.” Deakins’ tracking shots are incredibly impressive, and while one can argue it’s certainly a gimmick and selling point by the filmmakers, by not using cuts and edits it truly doesn’t give the audience a chance to breathe; we are as anxious as our two main characters.
The score by Thomas Newman (who like Deakins is one of the best of his craft but is 0-14 at the Oscars) is intense and let’s you know how to be feeling, nervous or angry or relaxed. It’s not the year’s best musical score (that’s either “Ad Astra” or “Marriage Story”), but it’s certainly not going to earn a complaint from me if it should land Newman his first ever Academy Award.
Where the film is held back is in its story, or maybe just the execution of it. While I am a sucker for long takes and appreciate the effort, planning and patience that must’ve gone into this film, at times things feel like they’re cheating or unearned. A few scenes drag or hold too long (including the obligatory war film scene where we humanize the hero by aiding a stranger), and until the climax there are only a handful of scenes that actually earn the tension or stakes that the entire film wants to sell itself as having.
“1917” is a technical achievement that deserves to be seen on the biggest and loudest screen possible. It has some solid performances (even if most are cameos, Andrew Scott kills in his scene) and the below-the-line work by Deakins and Mendes, as well as production designer Dennis Gassner, will surely all be nominated come Oscar weekend. I wish it made me *feel* something other than visually impressed, but sometimes you just have to take a film for what it gives you, not what it’s lacking.
Critic’s Rating: 7/10