1917 Review: The Valiant Return of Sam Mendes

Universal Pictures

Co-writer and director Sam Mendes entrusted his frequent collaborator and cinematographer, Roger Deakins, with an ambitious one-shot war epic. The 70-year-old director of photography delivered a cinematic achievement fitting of his visual genius.

Because of his knowledge of maps, Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is selected by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to deliver a message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch). The message orders the colonel to call off an attack that would lead 1,600 men into an ambush. Blake selects Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay) to accompany him on the mission. Blake and Schofield venture into enemy-occupied territory to stop the ambush before it begins.

1917 is beholden to spectacle. Long takes, or oners, a signature of director Steven Spielberg, exploded in popularity during the last decade with television shows like True Detective, Game of Thrones, and Daredevil. The trend has caught on in film, too, with long takes (thankfully) supplanting quick, indecipherable action. The 2011 Indonesian action movie The Raid: Redemption was paramount in shifting the genre balance away from three-second cuts and toward carefully choreographed sequences. Blockbuster action movies haven’t been swayed, but audiences judge the genre on these principles. More of John Wick’s extended setpieces, less of Michael Bay’s incomprehensible edits.

Oners are a celebration of the technical expertise required to capture an extended take, but the same factors have made them a fetishized gimmick. Fortunately, the know-how, budget, and stage management necessary to realize oners have prevented the technique from becoming pervasive. Time will tell whether 1917 is a cheap trick of the era or a war classic, but it owes its single-shot guile to Deakins. Only a smattering of movies owe more to their cinematographer than their director, writer, or performers, but half of the movies on such a list would belong to Deakins.

There’s a sterility to 1917. The Great War was infamously unsanitary: wet, contaminated trenches led to gangrene and infection. Poison gas caused blisters in the lungs and was deemed gruesome enough to turn chemical warfare into a crime against humanity. Body counts reached hundreds of thousands over parcels of land smaller than most suburban backyards. But 1917 is not Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. It acknowledges the sacrifices of its participants without documentary-level detail.

The list of magnificent shots is too long to count: a fiery French hamlet is illuminated by flares in the twilight; the camera tracks Blake and Schofield trekking through the muck in a murky, flooded, mortar-blast-created pit; in a river, Schofield clambers over a logjam of water-logged corpses. This striking imagery details carnage, filth, and casual mortality without beautifying the horrors of war.

Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns deserve credit for Blake and Schofield’s emotional availability. The two protagonists lean on one another for support in the face of a callous mission. A compassion-driven, late-mission pitstop is a well-worn war movie cliché, but effective character-building humanizes the pair long beforehand. Stellar performances from Chapman and MacKay anchor a movie with little dialogue and less plot. Celebrity cameos from Firth, Andrew Scott (Fleabag’s Hot Priest), and Mark Strong don’t break the immersion, but Cumberbatch’s inclusion is jarring.

1917 mimics Saving Private Ryan by building a script on action setpiece upon action setpiece. Mendes directs countless actors and extras in boundless space. It leans on its no-name stars for emotional depth. The aesthetic resembles Call of Duty more than All Quiet on the Western Front. In spite of all it has going against it, 1917 is a cinematic achievement. This isn’t the future of movies, but it is a distinguished ode to the past.