We don’t have nearly enough World War I films. Another World War 2 project is just a stone’s throw away (we just had one!), and there’s probably 10 in the hopper right now. But between 1917 and They Shall Not Grow Old, we’ve had a hell of a year.
1917 has an air of authenticity to it due to director Sam Mendes, and the concept that he drew some of the details from the stories of his grandfather, a World War I vet. While there are a few cliché moments that require a suspension of disbelief, the proof is in the details, as well as the stunning attempt at “one-shot” storytelling from cinematographer Roger Deakins.
It also greatly benefits by keeping the scale small. We have two deliverymen, essentially, tasked with stopping fellow British soldiers from walking into a trap set by the German forces: and the narrative doesn’t ever stray from that mission. By keeping the focus on “delivering a message,” 1917 ensures that it won’t get lost in the fold of other generic war films. We get a more personal look into World War I as opposed to a historical, macro one.
There’s a lot of walking and talking in 1917, almost like a wartime Aaron Sorkin joint. Along the way, we see the horrors of war front and center, rife with practical effects and incredible sets. It begs to be watched again and again, as there’s so much going on in the background that it’s impossible to take it all in on the first viewing. Both of the leads are fantastic but George MacKay (who was wonderful in Captain Fantastic) is the standout, as he marches forward with a sense of quiet indignation. Nearly everyone else, quite frankly, is a guest star.
It’s definitely not flawless. Although much of the walk and talk dialogue is affable, many of the more intense scenes could actually do without dialogue altogether, as many of the lines are utter aphorisms. All of the more powerful moments in 1917 bask in silence, and although the Hollywood star guests can be distracting, they’re mostly in and out and serve their purpose.
1917 will go down as one of the greats of war cinema, and not just because of the unusual World War I focus. Roger Deakins will assuredly win some award somewhere for his efforts, and Sam Mendes is finally back on track after the James Bond Spectre gaff.