Duration: 119 minutes
Story: 1917 follows the story of two young British soldiers during World War I, who are given a mission to deliver a crucial message. It warns of an ambush during a skirmish, soon after the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line during Operation Alberich in 1917.
Review: Sam Mendes has returned to the big screen as a director after 2015's release Spectre and turned a writer for the first time with this epic war film 1917. The filmmaker takes us into the horrifying events of World War I and keeps us tied down, scene after scene, for two hours that feel like half an hour (more on that later).
The film is set in northern France during World War I in 1917. The Germans have pulled back from the western front lines, and 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, led by Colonel Mackenzie, believes the Germans have fled because of their attacks and think this is the right time to take the new front line. However, back at the 8th two young soldiers, Schofield and Blake, are briefed that the retreat was a trap and a direct order has been given to stop the attack planned by Colonel Mackenzie. The story is inspired by writer-director Sam Mendes' great grandfather's experience during World War I.
Blake has an older brother in the 2nd Devons, driving his need to get to the Devonshire Regiment, on the other hand, Schofield thinks its best not to go back home at all, after a war and heads into the enemy territory thinking he won't be making it back. If they don't reach in time, along with Blake's brother 1,600 other men will also perish if the attack takes place, adding to the stakes. But halfway through the movie, I found myself wondering what was driving Schofield further towards the 2nd Battalion.
War has an inevitable effect on the people experiencing it, they tend to normalize it and believe anything else or less is not worth living for. Similarly, in Schofield's case, he thinks it's better if he doesn't go back, there is nothing left for him back home. He has already given up and what changes his mind is part of the story.
The journey that we are to see, unfortunately, gets highly snubbed in the film. There is so much to witness in every scene with so little dialogues that, the film becomes plot-driven and not character-driven. Events of chance, like people showing up to help Schofield, happen again and again because the plot needs him to get to the 2nd, not because he wants to get there and save the men.
Similar beat-the-clock dangerous mission settings have been seen numerous times in different genres, including war dramas. What sets 1917 apart is the continuous one-take shots that lead you into the film as though you are experiencing it yourself, crawling next to Schofield or following Blake as the bunker is about to collapse on all of you.
The first half of the film has some comic relief in terms of dialogues and incidents, but the second half quickly turns into a cautious tale for modern times. It clearly states in bold letters for its audience, 'This is what war was like. We are not ready for it'. We get to see the little details, from bullets being loaded to flares being shot so that they don't fall into enemy hands, to dead bodies at the most unexpected places.
The last cinematic advance film that was based in a war setting was Wonder Women. Of course, it is a superhero movie, they won't be sharing the same message. But both films wanted to show a glimpse of destruction on both sides, the heavy loss that leaves everyone handicap.
Here's where 1917 gets the upper hand, we see the destruction up close. The effects and consequences of war, with rivers being cut off to stop the dead bodies from flowing into the villages to towns being set on fire so that they can attack enemies at night time.
The two-hour film felt like less than half the time, because of its pacing. Schofield has to get to the other side of the former enemy line overnight. The film's story lasts only a couple of hours, and we don't miss a single second of it, which makes it seem almost easy. Everything is happening right in front of your eyes, making the time-span seem even smaller.
The other reason is the ending. We have a completely transformed character, from one who has given up on life and thinks the world back home doesn't matter, to one who wishes to go back to his family. He sees a ray of hope, but it doesn't click because the film misses it. The entire emotional journey is layered so deep within the horrific events of the war, it can easily be missed.
The background score by Thomas Newman and cinematography by Roger Deakins is more than praiseworthy. They both work hand-in-hand, complementing each other, and conditioning the audience for the next big scare. The time, light and the weather have been a big contributor to the look and feel of the film. Roger Deakins has given us many real feel films and 1917 is as close to real as it can get.
The casting of 1917 is surprising; every essential big actor has a dramatic entry even though they were not seen for more than two shots, including ace actors Colin Firth as General Erinmore and Benedict Cumberbatch as Colonel MacKenzie in bit roles. George MacKay as Lance Corporal Will Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman as Lance Corporal Tom Blake are the perfect unknown but easy to recall faces for a film driven by the plot. George MacKay does not struggle even for a second, when his character is struggling. There are no retrospective scenes but, George still manages to give us a glimpse of what is going on in Schofield's mind.
The film deserves all the praise that it is getting and will receive in the future for the extraordinary effort it had made in a time where war needs to seen for the terrible act that it is. Overall, a film like this should not be missed. Even after knowing the story, you may still want to take a look back at it. One other thing worth mentioning is the diversity that the casting team kept in mind. It showcases that World War I had people fighting from all ethnicities; we get to see East Asian and well as South Asian cast among the big armies walking to the battle, including an Indian Sikh.
Fun Fact: Don't be alarmed if you have a mini heart attack every time you hear a plane go by after watching 1917.