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Film Review: “1917”

Mitchell Shaughnessy

Film Reviewer

“1917,” which came out in 2019 and is directed by Sam Mendes, is an English war film and drama that demonstrates the horror and atrocities faced by infantry in the Western Front of Northern France during the climax of World War I. In particular, the film centers on a vital mission assigned to two young and ambitious British troops: William Schofield (George MacKay) and Thomas Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). The pair’s task is not an easy one; in fact, it’s practically a suicide mission. The two are entrusted with cautiously traversing through enemy lines to deliver a message to an attack group of 1,600 English soldiers, who are unknowingly walking straight into a deadly trap plotted by the German military.

This picture is exceptionally well-made. Everything is superb: the writing, direction, camerawork, acting, effects, soundtrack, and so forth. Indeed, the bar for war dramas has been raised exponentially since the release of “1917.” The film was a critical darling upon release, receiving much praise from critics and raking in $368 million at the box office on a $90-100 million budget. It also won three out of the ten Oscars it was nominated for at the Academy Awards, which consisted of “Best Cinematography,” “Best Sound Mixing,” and “Best Visual Effects.” If “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) is the quintessential World War II epic, then “1917” is the equivalent, but for the Great War.

The acting and dialogue dispersed between the different characters flowed exceptionally well and felt natural, not forced or clunky. Tom and William, for instance, feel like real people who have seen the absolute worst that humanity has to offer. Their line delivery is spot-on, and I was fully convinced that I was watching two young men in the midst of one of the most deadly and destructive conflicts in human history. I found myself feeling sorry for them in a sense. Seeing them cross through no man’s land was very suspenseful and nerve-racking. The barbed wire, rats, and rotting, decaying dead bodies of soldiers and horses strewn across the battlefield added to the feelings of uneasiness and anxiety. The score, conducted by Thomas Newman, is also brilliant, being slow and methodical when fitting, as well as fast-paced and tense when warranted by the plot. The costume and set designs are also outstanding, coming across as very real and period-accurate to late World War I; the overall presentation and use of mise-en-scene are flawless.

This is some of the best camerawork I’ve ever seen in any motion picture. One thing that impressed me significantly was the fact that the movie was convincingly edited to look like it was arranged in a single, massive, continuous shot for a very long duration of time. The filmmakers are very talented in that they hid the cuts by doing things like obscuring the characters in blackness or having them move behind a CGI tree to seamlessly blend one shot with another. For me, personally, it hugely adds to the immersion factor, and I wish to see more films try this technique in the coming future. This shooting method is also beneficial to character development. The perspective the audience takes when viewing the film actually resembles following closely behind Thomas and William traveling through a war-torn France. It’s truly incredible, and it goes to show how much hard work and effort went into making this film the technical marvel that it is.

Roger Deakins, the cinematographer, did an outstanding job with the overall look and feel of the picture. Deakins has rigorous experience within this profession, with much of his work being displayed prominently in films such as “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), “Blade Runner 2049” (2017), and many others. The shot composition in this film is downright gorgeous. There is one scene in particular that is very tense and beautiful to look at, where we see one of the main characters passing through a German-occupied town during the night. Flares can be seen going off in the distance, engulfing the city in a bright, attractive-looking orange color that was very aesthetically pleasing to look at.

The effects themselves are also very well-executed. There is one intense scene where a German fighter plane is shot down from the sky over a barn, and we see as it’s about to crash-land in a fiery explosion that will most definitely kill our main characters if they don’t move out of the way in time. This scene couldn’t have been handled any better. The effect of the plane falling closer and closer to the ground as the characters run for their lives, for me, is one of the most memorable parts of the entire film from a technical standpoint. This scene alone is reason enough to award this flick for its incredible use of sound and visual effects.

I have no complaints about this movie whatsoever. It’s as close to perfect as a film can be. The characters are engaging, likable, realistic, and well-written. There isn’t a single bad performance given by any actor or actress because the direction is just that well-done. The story is compelling and not convoluted or hard to follow. The music is well-composed, falling in line with the pacing, mood, and tone that specific scenes attempt to achieve. The costume and set designs are on-point. The sound and visual effects are stunning. The film is well-edited and well-shot, and the fact that it looks like it was done in one take is visually creative and impressive; it almost looks like a video game, but not in a negative way. There are no dull moments, as the film does a stellar job at keeping the audience tensed up and on the edge of their seat. There is a constant sense of danger looming over the main characters, and it never feels like they’re entirely safe, which I loved. “1917” is a magnificent achievement in cinema that I would be more than happy to sit down and re-watch time and time again. Overall, I give it a perfect score: 10/10. Check it out!