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REVIEW – “1917”: Birdman Meets Dunkirk in Sam Mendes’s Panic-Inducing, Groundbreaking War Epic

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From the moment Sam Mendes (Skyfall) makes his first frame in his attempt to shake up the war movie genre, you’re immediately swallowed whole by the will of the camera. You’re one with it, basically. And you’re suddenly in good company with a pair of rookie soldiers just trying to do their job and do it well. 1917 fulfills its most unique purpose with an unexpected level of professionalism. Never once does it appear Hollywood gimmicky. Much of the time will it represent the finest souls of humanity, crafting a mildly familiar symbolism around their exhaustive plight.

Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are as loyal to the British Army as one can be, figuratively joined at the hip as best friends in the combat zone. Yet at the height of the First World War, while stationed along the trenches of Northern France, to be handled with a mammoth task determined to alter the course of history, their assertiveness is tested. The mission: relay an important message warning of a potential ambush at the army’s stronghold near the Hindenburg Line. On the paper that this message is written on, it appears quite simplistic. But it is a lengthy journey, requiring the two to cross multiple enemy lines, risking their lives, likelihood, and reputations in the process. Make it more personal, Blake’s brother is stuck on the other side. Alas, a command’s a command. It needs to be followed to the letter, and our duo doesn’t make it look easy.

Perhaps that’s the point Mendes, his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful), his editor Lee Smith (Dunkirk), and his long-time cinematographer, fellow Oscar-winner Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) attempt to illustrate. Boldly, and deliberately. Right off the bat, we’re being jostled, throttled and thrust toward a near-insane line of fire. An explorative array of panoramic visuals, where the only thing that could possibly have improved the viewing experience was to have many forms of ground soil thrown in our face and the smoke of a rifle wafting in the air. The way this is shot, it’s a near-sensory assault that pulls no punches, with all the wrenchingly accurate brutality you would expect. Perhaps also coupled with a heightened clarity only the intimate closeness of a singular camera view can bring.

And in front of that camera, a capable, confident ensemble of mostly British performers doing their country proud, and Mendes’s tale justice. A tale inspired by accounts of his father Alfred, a hero in his own right during that very same war. MacKay and Chapman, both are established youthful veterans in the acting game; one’s done his Game of Thrones dues, the other’s had a few memorable character roles (his part in Captain Fantastic perhaps stands out most ardently). And yet, 1917 could easily be where they add true weight to their names in Hollywood. Where they will be most iconic and where they will build real momentum toward their bios. Theirs are roles many could only dream of but never fully anticipate being made reality.

It may help a tad to have some more notable actors bolstering such major leading debuts. Benedict Cumberbatch, still hailed by many as the Sherlock Holmes of our generation, commits every possible ounce of energy and focus as the loyal colonel determined to see out his plan. Colin Firth, the only person to counteract such a poorly planned directive, delivers on his own merits. Ditto for the ever-reliable Mark Strong‘s Captain Smith, a wayward third party never causing misdirection, but straight truth coupled with a helping hand. Do keep an eye open for Andrew Scott being his steadiest as the plucky Lieutenant Leslie.

However, for all the physical and personal performances our ensemble can bring, it’s likely the less visible aspects of our story that are perhaps the true stars of this precarious epic. Mendes’s eye for the most minimal of detail; Deakins’s ever-persistent ability to compose each stage of this singular shot. And Smith is the magician worthy enough to stitch and weave every frame like it were a series of idyllic paintings more than a mere film, exactly how he approached Dunkirk, only a trifle more intense. Their combined efforts are like pure cinematic art; of course, not everyone will understand just how profound this work will become.

Still, however one’s perception leans toward, best to look at the screen, and be prepared to not turn your head, perhaps not even blink for those nearly two hours. It will be gruesome, gut-wrenching, and perhaps a little uncomfortable; even then, Mendes knows when to show a small twinge of restraint. Open your ears and anticipate a pure auditory thrill ride, thanks partially to Thomas Newman’s pulsing, musical score. A soundtrack that rests comfortably in the background, crafting succinct themes without being in the least obtrusive. One can hope this will be his Oscar year.

When a motion picture manages to transcend its mere terminology, evolving into something more, something purely artistic while looking past apparent gimmicks or name recognition, that’s when a film can live on as a genuine classic well into the next life. And 1917 is just that film, Mendes the only person who could take mere stories, and turn them into an experience that must be enjoyed on the largest screen possible. 1917 could be his best example of a transcendent story, and he wears that badge with honest familial pride. Equal parts honoring the bright spots of otherwise dark wartime and celebrating when humanity can bond together against ridiculous circumstances. In the weeks that have passed since viewing this gem, that unity has not escaped my mind. A long-lasting ideal, among many, that has helped solidify Mendes’s war epic as the best motion picture of 2019 for me. And easily the strongest war film of the decade, one I’m sure I’ll return to time and again, even as the transcendence of time proves a weakened barrier or two. (A)

1917 goes into wide release this weekend; rated R for violence, some disturbing images, and language; 119 minutes.