1917 is a film about two British soldiers who are tasked with bringing official orders from the high command to the front line. The orders will stop a potentially devastating attack. There is extra incentive in the mission as one of the soldiers has a brother who would be among the men massacred in the attack. The film stars George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden. It is directed by Sam Mendes and is written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns.
The most obvious place to start with this film is in the technique employed where the filmmakers made it look as if this is one continuous shot. There are no cuts to other locations, there's no going back where we've already been, there's just this driving forward momentum. Of course the irony there is while this film covers miles of terrain, World War I was about inches and feet of gains. It works, though.
Roger Deakins is one of the most celebrated cinematographers of all time for good reason. His work here makes mud and fields and bombed out buildings look gorgeous. Lee Smith, the editor, is also at the top of his game. He has done many films of similar complicated machinery and he makes the film look as seamless as those that shot it wished it to be by hiding his cuts in movements so very imperceptible.
I mentioned the look of the film when I mentioned cinematography and here I'll praise the production designer, Dennis Gassner, and set decorator, Lee Sandales. The two of them and their teams created a fully lived in and immersive world. From the bodies that littered the battlefields, were buried in the craters, and were bloated and floated in any body of water around to the incredible detail of all of the structures of trenches, tunnels, half standing buildings, and quarries with piles of spent shells. It's astonishing to look at and every scene hides the details of the life that was lived and likely ended there.
It's also a welcome change from films like these to see the representation of the people of color that were there and fought along with the white soldiers. I liked the diversity in the faces and that several African and Asian men received speaking roles and weren't just relegated to the background of scenes. I loved watching as one Asian soldier empathizes with Schofield, but also has a moment of silliness when he joins in imitating their blustering commanding officer. It's also welcome to see the staggeringly young faces of most of the soldiers. Often in these war films directors will pull in men in their mid-thirties and early forties to play combat soldiers, but these men looked like the terrified 18-20 year olds that comprised a great number of the fighting forces.
Despite the heavy hitting British stars that took on the officers our heroes interact with, one of those young faces, George MacKay, steals the show from all of them. He has these large blue eyes that convey so much emotion and information. Much of his part in the last half is silent, but we can "hear" everything he's not saying on his face. His strength is in his determination and his presence. We learn little about him, but those snippets we get are beautifully acted by MacKay.
While the device of the "single shot" can miss things because the camera is always on our central characters, 1917 really works. It skimps on the violence of most war films saving it instead for the casualties encountered rather than inflicted. In that way 1917 shows the futility of conflict and this conflict especially. I recommend seeing it on the big screen so you can have the full visceral experience.