1917 - A
Rated R, 110 minutes
The new World War I drama “1917” is one of the most intense, compelling films you’ll see this year. From Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) and based on stories told to him by his grandfather, who served in the military during this time, it’s an unforgettable portrait of the bravery and sacrifice of the men who served. It also provides an ongoing, steady stream of intensity from the opening shot to the final, devastating scene, one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve seen this year and one that’ll stay with you long after the film is over.
At the height of the First World War during Spring 1917 in northern France, two young British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are given a seemingly impossible mission to deliver a message which will warn of an ambush during one of the skirmishes soon after the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line during Operation Alberich. The two recruits race against time, crossing enemy territory to deliver the warning and keep a British battalion of 1,600 men, which includes Blake's own brother, from walking into a deadly trap. The pair must give their all to accomplish their mission by surviving the war to end all wars.
Reminding of another terrific World War I film, "Gallipoli" (1981), the stellar "1917" is an accomplishment on its own on a couple of levels. First, Mendes, who co-wrote the screenplay with "Penny Dreadful's" Krysty Wilson-Cairns and basing it on stories told from his grandfather, writer and British war veteran Alfred Mendes, delivers one of the most compelling films of the year and one of the most impactful, intense war films in years. This intensity begins within 10 minutes of the film as the two soldiers step out into enemy lines to deliver an important message to their own troops in harms way; it's a breathless, unforgettable ride you won't soon forget.
Second, it's a stunning technical achievement, and its first-rate production values show on screen. The top-notch cinematography from Oscar-winning veteran Roger Deakins shows him at his best, with a handful of sublime tracking shots and action shots that will make you wonder how he did it. The music from acclaimed composer Thomas Newman also adds full texture to the film, and "1917" wouldn't have been as compelling without Newman's score.
As the soldiers tasked with the impossible, Chapman and MacKay ground the film with emotion and heart, particularly MacKay ("Captain Fantastic"), who shoulders most of the film's more grueling sequences. In fact, MacKay is deserving of an Oscar-nomination for surviving some of the year's most harrowing scenes; speaking of which, the film's most intense sequence is a breathless, extended run though a shadowy, desolate war-torn town, reminding of an unpredictable video-game maze.
There are a couple of memorable cameos from Oscar-winner Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, and while they're nice they really add little to the film. Mendes rarely gives you a break here, so it's best to revel in the film's few quieter moments, you'll need a breath or two before the next one. Intense, poignant and richly satisfying, "1917" is one of the year's finest films. You won't easily forget that final, devastating exchange between McKay and another soldier, so much so I have a feeling you'll be seeing it again come awards time.