Sam Mendes (Skyfall, Spectre and American Beauty) takes us on a ride that we could have never expected in his war film 1917.
While the tragedies and travesties of war are imminent — death, destruction, families torn apart — traversing through the terrain of World War I Germany is still stunning to the senses nonetheless. We are there with two young British soldiers Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) in the Universal Pictures film 1917.
What seems to be an impossible mission, going against time, the two must deliver a message that will stop a deadly attack on hundreds of soldiers — including Blake’s brother.
This stylized version of one-shot cinematography is not unique as it’s been achieved before in films like Timecode, The Wedding Party and Qasim Bashir’s A Boy. A Girl. A Dream: Love on Election Night. However, we’ve never experienced it on celluloid this way, a war story that allows the viewer to become a third party participant in the action as it’s happening. As George MacKay described it while filming, “it’s like a piece of theater in every take”.
We feel the anxiety the soldiers began to feel, we carry the weight of depression Schofield has, we understand the risks, decisions and the journey these soldiers have to take even if death is imminent.
We’ve seen many films about war throughout the years and there’s always the hero. There’s the hero that is willing to risk it all to save his platoon, his colleagues, and inevitably protects his people. In 1917, we see heroism through the eyes of two soldiers who invade enemy territory heading into a bunker filled with traps and dodging gunfire. It takes a miracle to get through to the other side.
What draws you into the story of 1917 is what happens in the second act. And without going into spoiler territory here, I’ll say that the plot intensifies when Schofield endures sudden tragedy and is fighting with every fiber of his being to carry out his mission to stay loyal and follow orders under the direct instruction of his commander.
Director Sam Mendes weaves us in and out of moments of action-packed violence and calm moments when a soldier discovers a young woman with a baby in hiding fighting for survival. He exposes Schofield’s humanity and the soldier immediately gives all of the food he has for the innocents caught in this devastating war.
Blake and Schofield start off as these nervous volunteers trying to feel themselves out — wondering even why they’ve taken on this mission in the first place. They later evolve as combatants and close friends, with an alliance that sustains forever.
From a technical perspective using one-shot photography gave this mission narrative more depth. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is another example of a film edited as one shot and filmed with a series of long takes. 1917 does have its moment where the one-shot photography stops and makes a profound cut. Mendes uses that moment wisely as a climactic point for the film. From the well-crafted photography to the brilliant performances of both MacKay and Chapman it comes as no surprise that this movie already received critical acclaim. The 77th annual Golden Globe Awards awarded 1917 with a Best Picture win and filmmaker Sam Mendes with Best Director.
The movie also stars Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, with Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch. 1917 is a film that sticks with you long after it’s over.
1917 opens nationwide January 10
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online community for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She's the primary film critic for BGN and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critic Association