Movie Review: 1917

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Director: Sam Mendes

by Jason Koenigsberg

Have you ever seen a movie that made you ask, “How did they do that?” As a critic obviously I see a lot of movies and I have for years. So it is a very rare and special occasion when I come across a movie that makes me ask, “How did the director do that?”, 1917 is that movie. It made me ponder how they were able to choreograph some of these long takes through so many obstacles. Eat your heart out Alfonso Cuaron, 1917 contains some of the most elaborate and impressive single takes in any movie I can recall. This one of the most stunning technical marvels of recent years. 

It probably helps that writer/director Sam Mendes has a theater background and he has directed some outstanding and diverse motion pictures such as the Academy Award winning drama American Beauty (1999), the meditative Gulf War film Jarhead (2005), and the two most recent James Bond films including Spectre (2015) which had the longest and most impressively staged opening shot in any 007 adventure, so he knows how to handle a big budget, big talented actors, and still work efficiently within the realms and limitations of theater. One minute the camera is low in the muddy trenches surrounded by flies, giant rats, rotting human and animal carcasses, then the next minute the camera appears to be on a swooping crane shooting the subjects from up high over water as they walk alongside a river bank. In my head I counted about five or six times where Sam Mendes most likely cut to another shot, but he sure disguises those cuts very well. I think a documentary about the making of 1917 could prove to be as interesting to watch as the actual movie. 

Some may dismiss 1917 as nothing more than a gimmick of a movie, where its director Sam Mendes tried to show off how skillful he could be orchestrating such long and difficult shots. To a certain extent, those detractors may be right. Look at how much time I have devoted this review to praising the films craftsmanship and not a single word about the plot or the actors. So it does distract from the story and take away from the performances. Honestly, the two leads Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are serviceable. They carry the movie well enough and they have to since one or both of them are in practically every frame. The camera leads them at times, follows them at other times and once again look at what I am doing, I tried to talk about the acting but I digressed and went on to describe the camera movements that frame the actors. The cinematography shot exquisitely by master D.P. Roger Deakins does depict the actors point of view and how they feel, therefore creating reactions from the audience when certain events occur. The colors are vibrant when they need to be, dark and cold when the film shifts into no man’s land and the trenches, all of the details surrounding our main characters are so impressive they could have filmed this without the main actors and the plot and it would still be a beauty to behold.

There is a raw emotional feeling throughout 1917 as the characters go on their journey to deliver a message to stop the British troops from advancing into a trap. One of the soldiers has a personal stake in the mission as he wants to save his brother from what would likely be annihilation if he does not accomplish his mission in time. It felt like Sam Mendes was making his version of a Terrence Malick film, especially The Thin Red Line (1998) by showing how mankind fighting a war is destroying nature. The music score is used sparingly but definitely helps enhance the already powerful images. 1917 manages to have a few surprises as the characters go on their journey but the whole time I was really wondering what was going on offscreen because the director and crew probably had to work so hard to stage the next scene before the camera moved to it. I am sure a lot of CGI was used to make the directors job easier, Sam Mendes really channeled his inner Hitchcock with how he was able to manipulate the audience by displaying such massive set pieces without a single edit. 

A lot of money and special effects went into making 1917 such a thrilling masterfully crafted war picture. The trenches have never looked grittier and this easily ranks with Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) as one of the best movies ever made about World War I. A good portion of 1917 was reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies where a lot of time was devoted to watching two characters walk on a quest and their surroundings are often more interesting than the actors and the dialogue. I also felt that 1917 borrowed heavily from Kubrick’s other war film, his Vietnam story Full Metal Jacket (1987) because 1917 has a sequence that involves a sniper, and a woman, but 1917 has those scenes in the middle and not at the climax. The scene with the woman and a child was one of the weakest moments of 1917 like Sam Mendes was trying to slow the story down to give the audience, and the actors, a chance to breathe and focus on something that was not entirely devoted to the mission. 1917 is worth seeing on the biggest screen possible and is one of the many admirable achievements cinema has to offer in the latter part of 2019. The majority of this year was dominated by bland comic book movies, sequels, remakes and reboots but these last few months have been a very exciting time for movie lovers and 1917 is derivative of other war films but still manages to joins the 2019 elite as one of the best movies of the year. 

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