It’s World War 1. We join a British company on the French frontline fighting the Germans. We quickly learn that the Germans have retreated and a British force plans to follow them, but this retreat is a trap. Two soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) are sent to quickly travel to this British force about to attack and deliver news that it is a trap and to hopefully save thousands of lives. This journey is incredibly deadly, even though the battlefield is supposedly empty of troops. This is based loosely on real events passed down from the director Sam Mendes’ grandfather, though these characters and exact journey are fictional.
This movie will join the ranks as one of the best war movies ever made, it does everything it seeks to do, to incredible effect.
Our two leads are absolutely incredible but the majority of the heavy lifting falls to George MacKay, who delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance and whose arc is tragic and yet inspiring. For both of these men, we don’t get a lot of history but their characters are slowly fleshed out over their journey, through stories and mannerisms and how they interact with others. We only follow them for less than a day, but we still get a very detailed look at their entire lives.
Speaking of only following them for less than a day… This film is shot to seemingly be one-take (or at least, very few takes). While this technique keeps us in the action, they also play with this mechanism in terms of time. An eight-hour journey is sped up, as traveling from city to city only takes minutes, even though the camera never cuts. It’s a perfect mix of realism and efficiency. The action never stops and this one-take structure makes you feel the burden and the never-ending onslaught of problems, yet we don’t ever have to endure long stretches of silence as they travel from place to place. Artistically, it works perfectly.
This is an action film and these sequences are thrilling. Explosions will have you flinch. Gunshots feel like they’re literally all around you. You feel in the midst of this journey with our heroes and the action sequences all feel incredibly high stakes, especially since we don’t quite know how this story will end. I would encourage you to see this in the biggest and loudest theater near you.
What doesn’t work?
The only thing that didn’t work is part of the marketing campaign, specifically the trailers. So if you haven’t seen the trailers already, stay away. There are huge moments featured here that forecast the ending of the film and spoil big twists and turns. I was waiting for moments to happen, which can really undercut the suspense. This movie would be best with no prior knowledge.
This movie absolutely nails it. We have a very small cast, yet the time is used wisely to become familiar with them. The action is absolutely incredible and the ‘one-shot’ method used to shoot the film makes us feel like the war is truly nonstop. Our leads deliver incredible performances, especially George MacKay. If you’re in the mood for an intense and riveting war movie, you won’t find better than 1917.