Director Sam Mendes has pulled off a visually-stunning, epic war film, but it's "one-shot" gimmick works against it.
It's the height of World War I - known then as "The Great War" - and two British soldiers are tasked with a seemingly impossible mission: New intelligence from the air has shown that a British force is about to walk into an absolute massacre, so Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott) and Schofield (George MacKay) have less than a day's time to bust their ass and get all the way up to the front lines, to deliver the message that the forces must not advance.
For the remaining time, we witness these two men go up against increasingly horrific odds, risking their lives over and over again for the good of their country and their fellow soldiers. This is a violent, gritty, bloody affair, and it puts you down right into the trenches like not many other war films have since maybe "Saving Private Ryan." Or in other words, it deserves incredibly high praise for its realism.
But it's not without flaws. It would be misleading to say that the film "stars" anyone other than MacKay and Scott...there are certainly appearances by Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Richard Madden, almost as if these names needed to be attached for commercial reasons. It actually detracts from the film, because every time a "known" actor pops up, it sort of jars the viewer out of the movie.
And while the film was NOT shot all in one take, its gimmick is that it wants you to believe that it was. There are several clever "cuts" that are seamless and hard to locate with the untrained eye, so the nearly 2-hour film feels as if it is taking place in a continuous, real-time sequence. The result adds to us feeling like we're right there with these men, but it also detracts from the movie in other ways. For example, are we to believe that this "impossible" mission took just as long as the film's run-time? Mendes cheats things a bit as the course of an entire day passes by, but without a cut or a passage of time portrayed on-screen, something feels unnatural about its progression. The question you're left with is: Why use this "one-shot" gimmick at all?
The answer to that question might very well be boredom...that is, this film's cinematographer is the legendary Roger Deakins, a 13-time Oscar nominee who finally won his first trophy in 2017 for "Blade Runner 2049." The guy is simply a master (his work was also the only redeeming quality of "The Goldfinch" earlier in 2019), and the conceit of "1917" might have been a similar "impossible" challenge that only Deakins might have been ready to take on...I mean, what else hasn't this guy done at this point? Especially late in the film there are some absolutely breath-taking, stunning shots of all-out war, the sort of shots that most likely will make Deakins in the conversation for yet another nomination.
"1917" is a beautiful film, and an important one, held back only by the very gimmick that makes most of it work. It's a beneficial trade in the end, and despite its shortcomings, there is no visual equal among the rest of the 2019 slate of films.
Genre: War, Drama.
Run Time: 1 hour 50 minutes.
Starring: George MacKay, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth.
Co-Written and Directed by Sam Mendes ("Spectre," "Skyfall," "Away We Go," "Revolutionary Road," "Jarhead," "Road to Perdition," "American Beauty").
"1917" opens everywhere on Friday, January 10th, 2020.
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