The brilliance of 1917 works on multiple levels. Simple as it may be, the film tells an effectively gripping story of fortitude during wartime. The manner in which this story is told may not leave much room for expansive plot or historical background information, but it makes up for that by giving the audience a gripping experience in which it is impossible not to feel the urgency. Staying tied to a single character for the run-time also creates empathetic involvement unlike any war film I have ever experienced. But as brutally horrific as the film makes war appear, this is also a remarkably beautiful film. Beyond the poetry of the wartime themes of sacrifice and loss, 1917 is a technical marvel. Three times in my life I have been brought to tears by filmmaking, separate from the story being told, and this is the second time this experience has come from a Sam Mendes film.
The film begins with the shot of Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) sleeping in a field somewhere in Europe during WWI. We hear instructions given to his friend without the camera cutting from Schofield, which should clue us in to his importance from the first ten seconds. The melancholic mood brought from Thomas Newman’s emotionally poignant score also immediately sets the tone for the film. This is a war film, but one more interested in our investment with the characters than the spectacle of battle. As the camera pulls back, we are introduced to our next important character, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). Blake has just been given an order to report, and told he must bring one other soldier with him. Before the shot has moved from Schofield’s face, it is clear that he will be the one chosen.
As the film progresses in the next few minutes, those who are unaware will begin to notice something; the camera doesn’t cut. As Blake and Schofield make their way to the barracks containing General Erinmore (Colin Firth), the camera just seems to follow alongside and ahead of them, amidst the spectacularly accurate production design and slew of background soldiers. As celebrities appear in supporting roles that last no more than a scene, the focus remains unceasingly tied to Schofield and his compatriot. While this may seem upon description to be a gimmick, it is actually an effective way of tying the audience to a single character’s experience of war. An experience, while horrifying, is also laced with beauty and respect thanks to the unified work done by Newman, Mendes, and cinematographer Roger Deakins.
But that’s not to say that Mendes, Deakins, and Newman are the only reason the film works, because it clearly took an army of dedicated technicians and performers. The entire film feels like a cohesive labor of love on all ends. I am unashamed to say that this was my favorite film of last year, and one that reignites my hope in the future of cinema.
The Blu-ray release comes with DVD and digital copy of film. The special features on the disc include five promotional featurettes, and two commentary tracks. The first is a feature-length director’s commentary with Mendes, while the second features director of photography, Deakins.
Entertainment Value: 10/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 10/10
Historical Significance: 10/10
Special Features: 8/10