2020, R, 119 min. Directed by Sam Mendes. Starring George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Colin Firth, Claire Duburcq, Nabhaan Rizwan.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 10, 2020
A film exists both within and outside of time. It can catch a moment, but will be viewed in contexts outside of what the filmmaker intended. Period pieces are even more complicated, re-creating an era, but that re-creation will say as much about when the film was made as it does about the past given new life.
Sam Mendes’ 1917, a grueling and reverential depiction of one run across no-man’s-land in World War I, is both a vivid re-creation of a time and a film that could only have been made now. It is, in many ways, a small story. Two British lance corporals – Schofield (MacKay) and Blake (Chapman) – are pulled from their rest against a tree. There’s something pastoral about the setting, but it’s a ruse. Mere feet away are the sodden trenches of conflict, and in a bunker they are given a mission. The Second Devons, a British battalion, are working on bad information and planning an offensive the following morning. The only problem is that it’s a trap, and they will all be wiped out – and among their ranks is Blake’s brother. There are no telephone lines, no direct routes of communication, and so the pair must run across the battlefield, through what the command thinks, hopes, prays are abandoned enemy trenches, and they must do so without assistance. “Down to Gehenna, or up to the throne, he travels fastest who travels alone,” the battle-weary General Erinmore (Firth) tells the duo.
Contrary to the hype, 1917 is not a single shot – nor is it supposed to be, with one major and pivotal time break. It is instead a unified experience. There are no major character developments for the the runners as they encounter friends, passersby, or enemies, because this is too short a time frame: Instead, it is how they respond after having seen so very, very much before the film even begins, before they leave that tree. There’s nothing accidental about 1917: Even the precise date, April 6, is loaded with meaning, marking the day the Americans finally entered the 3-year-old conflict, and three days before the pivotal Battle of Arras. It’s a moment of stasis, and the runners’ mission is intended to keep it that way, if only temporarily. Yet Mendes and his team create no safe haven. The land is a mire, the trenches are endless, and the men are brittle, worn down by stress and death and the arbitrary nature of violence. It’s etched in the face of Schofield, who evokes the hollow horror in the eyes of Florya, the shattered child in Come and See. Yet it’s also in the sunken faces of a who’s who of great British character actors, wracked by bitterness, desperation, exhaustion, and brutalizing experience that respects neither class nor rank.
Basing the story on family history, Mendes’ terrifying view of war is poetic and tragic, dreamlike without the forced stoner surrealism that too often afflicts war dramas. It is instead impressionistic, most especially in its highly structured cinematography. Roger Deakins’ camera drifts through the chaos, taking Emmanuel Lubezki’s drift over water-logged tree roots at the beginning of The Revenant and extrapolating it out to two engrossing hours where silences and gaps between combat are as chilling and tense as any firefight.
But this is not simply a story of a war a century ago: It is a story of what war does to us, of how arbitrary and senseless it can seem, of how we win by avoiding needless battle, of how war can be about saving and not taking lives. That’s how Mendes pays true tribute to the soldiers, by not boxing them in as cardboard heroes or glamorizing the action. When it was being shot only a year ago, 1917 was a phenomenal tribute to a generation almost wiped out in the trenches of World War I. At the moment of release, it has become more timely. A story of good men trying to prevent a dangerous attack made by ill-informed leaders, based on bad information and bloody intentions? This is no period piece, but a warning.