During the World War I centennial remembrance last year, I wore my poppy proudly. I awoke at 6 a.m. Eastern time here in the United States to mark the "11/11/11" moment of silence. And I tried to imagine what it was like in the trenches for my great-grandfather and the millions of other men who served. My only regret was that the war was not being honored with a cinematic masterpiece like Christopher Nolan's recent World War II epic, Dunkirk.
With Sam Mendes' 1917, the Great War has now been so honored. Inspired by the true tales of his grandfather, Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) has achieved a singular accomplishment, literally: a one-shot, real-time look at life on the front lines. Though the two-hour film is actually comprised of several long takes seamlessly sewn together to create the impression of continuous filming, the finished product is arguably the greatest single-take illusion in cinema history. And it's also the best movie about the Great War since Lawrence of Arabia in 1962.
As with Dunkirk, the story is remarkable but, at its core, rather simple. Mendes' film, which he penned with Scottish writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, focuses on two young British soldiers tasked with the impossible. In broad daylight, they must enter no man's land, navigate muddy bomb craters, slip through barbed-wire barricades, climb corpses of both horses and humans, and locate another infantry division — all while avoiding German attack. They must then relay an improbable message to cancel an attack that could cost more than a thousand lives.
This unenviable circumstance is due to Operation Alberich, a tactical German retreat meant to entice an Allied advance that will facilitate a well-calculated and savagely effective ambush. And to add even more human drama, plus some shades of Saving Private Ryan, the brother of one of the two soldiers is serving in the potentially ill-fated division.
But the two infantrymen, Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield, are far from green. This is year three of the war, and the men have seen it all, or so they thought. Schofield was even awarded a medal for bravery at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. But instead of wearing the prize proudly, he swapped it for a bottle of wine. "I was thirsty," he tells his comrade.
As Blake, Dean-Charles Chapman (Blinded by the Light) gives a relatable and heartbreaking performance. But it's George MacKay (Captain Fantastic), as Schofield, who exhibits extraordinary acting resolve and plain old physical endurance, as he's required to run, jump, tumble, and emote in exquisitely choreographed and undoubtedly grueling long takes. Some more well-known actors — I won't ruin the surprise — turn up in tiny but impactful parts, but it's Dennis Gassner's revelatory production design, Thomas Newman's score and, most of all, Roger Deakins' otherworldly cinematography that are the true stars.
In a year that has brought us the dark intensity of Joker, the joy of Toy Story 4, the existentialism of Ad Astra, the spiritual tête-à-tête of The Two Popes, and the humanity of Marriage Story, Mendes' 1917, like the soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the war to end all wars, stands head and shoulders above the rest.
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