Premise: Two young British soldiers during the First World War are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, and one of the soldiers’ brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.
Sam Mendes’ 1917 is an impressive faux single shot movie set during WWI with an immersive ticking clock plot. The tagline of “time is the enemy” couldn’t be more accurate as the movie follows two men tasked with delivering a message that will save up to 1,600 soldiers walking into a trap. Although it may appear at first glance to lack certain plot and character elements, 1917 offers a powerful message of duty, perseverance, and honor in an intentionally inglorious way.
The artistry on display in 1917 is magnificent as director and co-writer Sam Mendes and his team pull off a particularly stunning magic trick. The long and complex shots are mesmerizing in the way they establish tension and then build upon it. The immersive aspect of 1917 is nearly overwhelming at times and rewards the audience with tense moments and, albeit sparse, quiet introspection for the characters.
The intensity and general beauty of the film is scored by the best work I’ve heard from composer Thomas Newman in a very long time. There’s an incredible amount of restraint Newman showcases as his music slowly guides the characters through silent landscapes before bombarding the audience with a cacophony of heart-pounding music when the tension reaches its apex. In some ways, the effectiveness of the music may be a byproduct of the film’s somewhat lacking characterization. The audience is inundated with stunning vistas and heart-pounding action, but we don’t get a clear sense of the characters outside of a couple vague lines of dialogue when the action slows down. However, Newman fills that emotional void by imbuing the score with enough sorrow and tension to help compensate for the lacking plot; at least somewhat.
The plot itself is impressive insofar as Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns successfully wove a coherent and propulsive narrative into the high concept of the filming. The film is very straightforward, but it’s 1917‘s impressive faux single shot gimmick that works to immerse you in the story. Mendes dedicates 1917 to a relative from WWI who passed down stories of the war to his kin. However, the film doesn’t pay homage to the men who fought in WWI in the traditional war movie hero motif. Instead, 1917 honors the spirit of the men who fought in WWI by intentionally making them un-heroic, lacking ego, and (for lack of a better term) task rabbits. At times it’s perhaps a bit too subtle, but when the characters are faced with an obstacle (or in one case involving milk, their humanity), they do the work they are tasked with in order to save the lives of nearly 2,000 people. It’s unassuming but still packs a surprising punch.
That’s not to say the film couldn’t have done with more character moments. In fact, that is where the movie is lacking the most. George MacKay’s Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman’s Blake are given somewhat bare bones motivation and background. We know that Blake’s brother is in the company that is heading into a trap and we eventually get a glimpse of Schofield’s attitude toward war and valor. But these backstories and character traits are merely set dressing instead of important characterization. Perhaps it’s the intention of Mendes and company to make these characters blank canvases on which we are meant to project the idea of the WWI soldier. That is a noble venture in the storytelling, to be sure. However, there are moments where the spectacle overshadows the motivations of the characters a bit too much. In those moments, the single shot technique does feel gimmicky. However, it is still a marvel to see being pulled off.
As with any war movie, comparisons are sure to be made to Saving Private Ryan. Those comparisons are apt as 1917 shares a lot of similarities to the plot of Spielberg’s masterpiece. But there’s no question that 1917 is more concerned with style where Saving Private Ryan was all encompassing about the war experience and its effect on the characters in it. To that end, 1917 is the most straightforward war movie in a long time. A more apt comparison would probably be to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. However Nolan’s use of different time spans across multiple story lines is a more compelling narrative structure than the single shot technique of 1917.
For the most part, though, 1917 is simply a point A to point B movie with plenty of visual and auditory feats to appreciate. The underlying message of honor and perseverance in the face incredible odds is a noble undertaking and a worthy tribute to the people who fought in WWI. Although that message does get slightly lost in the spectacle, the single shot technique is a wonder to behold and impressive in and of itself.