Technically ambitious and completely immersive, 1917 (2019), co-written and directed by Sam Mendes, is a uniquely powerful war film that says, yeah, war sucks, but during war, people go above and beyond simply because they must.
It’s the last year of WWI, and the film opens with two young British soldiers assigned a dangerous mission by their commanding general. As communication wires have been cut, they must hand-deliver a message to a front-line unit that tomorrow morning will make a doomed attack, and stop it from going forward. Multiplying the stakes for these soldiers is the fact one of them has a brother serving as a lieutenant in the doomed unit.
What follows is a story told with the appearance of a single take, following the soldiers from their trenches across no-man’s land to abandoned enemy positions to bombed-out ruins, each of them a horrific set-piece of half-buried corpses and snipers and murderous Germans and burning towns. It ends up feeling like DUNKIRK with similar stakes as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, but without all the yanking on the viewer’s emotions.
The single-take visual effect is amazing, making theater viewing worthwhile, and providing an immersive experience while lending an additional atmosphere of realism to the film. The world-building is incredible. Morally, the story hits the right notes–that heroism isn’t in killing and conquering but accomplishing the mission regardless of personal cost, and that in war, men owe debts to the dead and the living. You don’t cheer when one of the soldiers kills a German, you do when they survive and get the job done. I also really enjoyed another moral of the story, which is each act of heroism makes its small contribution but overall may not make a major impact on the war itself, which remains brutal and unforgiving and tomorrow, may undo all the good that was done today.
The film had a few negatives for me. A minor complaint was using stars for cameos, when minor actors would have been great throughout to better respect the immersive technique. Another minor complaint was a character running through explosions that are almost right behind him. My biggest complaint was the one-take approach had a tradeoff, which was long stretches of walking around until I grew restless watching it, and the realism of the dialogue meant I never really got to know the characters very well, which made me far less invested in them emotionally. I get it the movie didn’t want to be emotionally manipulative but instead invest the viewer honestly, but it could have traded just a *little* of that so we could get to know the characters and empathize more.
Overall, this is a powerful movie, true to its vision, realistic to a fault, and technically brilliant. I enjoyed it enormously, though I’m not sure yet if I loved it. In the end, 1917 completely satisfied my brain even if it didn’t capture my heart. I hope there are more war films like it and DUNKIRK, films that put you in war and let you think and feel for yourself.