Sam Mendes’s new film “1917” is an intense epic genre exercise which will surely impresses you a lot with its astounding technical achievement on the screen. As continuously following a long, perilous journey across the battlefields of World War I, the movie dazzles, horrifies, and electrifies us from the beginning to the end, and you may come to forgive its several notable shortcomings as admiring how much it attempts to push the envelope inside its familiar genre territory.
Set in a sector of the Western Front in France, April 1917, the movie begins with the introduction of two young British soldiers played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman. While these two lads are having a little rest along with other soldiers, they are suddenly called by the commander of their battalion, and the commander instantly briefs them on an important mission to be accomplished by them as soon as possible. The German Army recently seems to be retreating to the east, but that turns out to a tactical move for entrapping some other battalion of the British Army, and our two heroes must deliver this important piece of information directly to the commander of that battalion before it is too late.
Because one of our two heroes happens to have a brother in that battalion, he certainly feels an urge to leave as soon as possible, so he and his comrade soon embark on their risky journey full of dangers here and there. While they are relatively safe when initially they walk along long trenches full of exhausted or wounded soldiers, they must be really careful once they enter no man’s land, and the mood becomes quite more tense when they subsequently arrive at the empty front line on the side of the German Army.
As the screenplay by Mendes and his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns throws one peril after another along its plot, the movie steadily holds our attention via a series of long-take sequences which are seamlessly stitched together to form one long, continuous narrative flow during its 2-hour running time, and it goes without saying that cinematographer Roger Deakins’ camera is another main star of the movie besides MacKay and Chapman. As Deakin’s camera is fluidly and skillfully moving here and there around the two main performers of the movie, we come to feel more immersed into their characters’ constantly dangerous circumstance, and Mendes and Deakins astound us with several terrific moments such as a striking nocturnal sequence which instantly reminded me of a certain Wagnerian term with all those fires and shadows under the dark night sky.
In the meantime, the movie occasionally becomes relaxed a bit as giving some respite to us as required. While there is a little human moment involved with a bunch of British soldiers appearing at one point during the middle part of the film, there is also a desperate moment involved with a young French woman stuck with a little baby in a town completely ruined by the ongoing battle, and then we get a serene musical moment in the middle of a forest later in the movie.
Of course, the movie surely does not disappoint us at all as pulling all the stops during the climatic part, and Mendes, Deakins, and the other main crew members of the film unnerve and thrill us as much as before. While Deakins continue to astonish us more, the abrasively ambient score by Thomas Newman adds extra gritty quality to the actions unfolded on the screen, and you may feel quite exhausted when the movie finally stops at its final destination point.
However, I must also point out that the movie often feels rather superficial in terms of story and characters, and that is the main reason why I only admired its superb technical spectacles from the distance with much emotional involvement. While I understand that the movie intends to be as simple and efficient as possible, I could not help but notice that its two lead characters are more or less than bland figures to be rolled along its plot course, and a few human details glimpsed from them feel perfunctory to say the least.
Anyway, MacKay and Chapman fill their respective parts as much as they can, and they look convincing together during several key action moments in the film. In case of the other notable cast members in the movie including Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden, they merely come and then go while not overshadowing MacKay and Chapman, and it is a bit shame that the movie does not allow them to do more than functioning as obligatory plot points.
Since making a sudden breakthrough via Oscar-winning film “American Beauty” (1999), Mendes has tried a number of different things as shown from several excellent films ranging from “Revolutionary Road” (2008) to “Skyfall” (2012), and he shows us here again that he is still a top-notch filmmaker, but I am not sure whether “1917”, which won the Golden Globe award for Best Picture a few weeks ago and recently garnered 10 Oscar nominations including the one for Best Picture, is as good as these mentioned works of his. While my admiration on its technical aspects is still growing even at present, the movie also feels to me like something no more than a big, expensive technical exercise with little human depth and personality, but I will not deny that I was often riveted by its visceral verisimilitude and gritty realism during my viewing, so I recommend it with some reservation. It may not be great, but it willingly and boldly goes for exciting cinematic challenges to watch, and it accomplishes its mission well on the whole at least.