By Stephen Whitty
1917 isn’t just an anti-war film. It’s anti “war film.”
Like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, it looks at a not traditionally heroic moment — a harried evacuation in Nolan’s film; here, a desperate warning not to attack. It features recognizably flawed and frightened characters, and tells their story in a novel, and sometimes challenging, way.
And its avoidance of the usual war-movie clichés makes it all the more powerful.
Director Sam Mendes has said his film was inspired by stories his grandfather once told him about his own wartime service. Set during some of the darkest days of World War I, it focuses on an upcoming battle against the Germans. The British forces are expecting an easy time of it.
What they don’t know is that they’re walking into an ambush.
So two young British soldiers are sent on a near-suicide mission, through minefields and occupied territory, to warn their countrymen to hold off. One of the messengers is the younger brother of one of those preparing-for-battle men, which makes the mission very, very personal.
Now moving into wider release, 1917 played limited engagements late last month, in hopes of generating some early popular attention and critical enthusiasm. That didn’t quite happen (although its recent Golden Globes wins may help). Perhaps it’s because its war, more than a century old, feels so distant now. Perhaps it’s because its young leads, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, aren’t particularly well known.
But both actors, particularly MacKay, are excellent in their parts. And the real star here is Mendes’ direction, which, to emphasize the frantic pace of their mission, shoots the nearly two-hour film as if it were a single, continuous shot.
It’s not technically a continuous shot, but rather some clever fakery that joins the separate scenes together. But as our two heroes race to deliver their message, we feel as if we’re rushing along with them.
Still, the film occasionally catches its breath, and pauses to spotlight nicely etched supporting performances. There’s Colin Firth as one weary but honorable officer, and Benedict Cumberbatch as another, slightly pigheaded one. And Mark Strong is a standout as a sardonic captain, whose bitter pessimism serves as his own shield.
There’s also a tense scene in a booby-trapped German bunker, and a tender interlude when MacKay calms a terrified woman and child.
Although it didn’t generate many headlines at its opening, with luck, this thoughtful yet deeply felt movie will still find its audience. Despite its one-shot gimmick and some flashy sequences — including an astonishing plane crash — 1917 is a simple film, with a basic, albeit vital, message: War is full of unthinking, indiscriminate violence. And that is why we must always think very hard before we dare to start one.
1917 Is available On Demand and on DVD beginning March 23. Check your cable system for availability.