As we wind down towards the end of 2019, there have been a lot of really amazing films to reflect on over the course of the year – “Joker“, “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood“, “Avengers: Endgame“, and others. But the one that stands out among all of them opens on December 25th- “1917.”
It’s a straightforward “impossible assignment” storyline set in the second half of World War I, but beyond its minimalist cast who deliver career-high performances, it’s the execution of the film that sets it apart.
Set over the course of a day and a night in the front-line trenches in France, the tale follows two British lance corporals, Schofield (played by George MacKay) and Blake (played by Game of Thrones’ Dean-Charles Chapman) who are given orders to intercept a battalion who have advanced to take advantage of a German retreat and tell them to call off the attack. It turns out that the retreat is strategic and the Germans are planning a massive counterattack to wipe out the advancing forces. The attack is to happen in the morning, and if the two don’t deliver their orders in time, the entire 1,600 men will likely be wiped out, among them Blake’s older brother.
It’s not a unique story, and it has a certain familiarity with 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan“. What makes “1917” special is that it is executed over it’s just more than two-hour length in nearly realtime. Not only is the action kept moving rapidly, it’s done in as nearly a single take as might be practical. Much will be said over the coming weeks and into the awards season over the achievement in the cinematography and the amount of choreography in delivering such a unique project, but experiencing it on a big screen with all of the surrounding claustrophobia as one might be able to imagine.
Opening on an idillic morning in a field of flowers and with Schofield and Blake relaxing alongside a tree, it’s a beautiful and serene as one might find. A messenger delivers instructions to report to the general and they get up and start moving. One realizes that the scene keeps going, as they walk barely a hundred yards, they’ve moved from the field into the staging tents to the ramp into the trench, down into the muck and shell-shocked faces of youths waiting for it all to be over. It keeps moving with the feeling of a stage play where the sets move around the ever-advancing action and relationship between the men and those around them.
My marvel over the film isn’t due to recency bias, as it’s been nearly a month and a half since I first saw it and the more I reflect on it, the better it becomes. There have been films with arguably better performances, or better stories, however the cinematography in this sets it apart and also lands it amongst the best war films ever. By its nature it is also different than many others – 2017’s “Dunkirk,” the aforementioned “Private Ryan” and the mini-series “Band of Brothers.” All excellent and edge-of-your-seat, but “1917” is in it’s own way unique, and not likely to be seen replicated anytime soon.
“1917” is rated R, and opens everywhere Christmas Day.
Rating: 5 stars out of 5