The Prism of War: Our Review of ‘1917’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - December 23, 2019
The Prism of War: Our Review of ‘1917’

Sometimes you just have to marvel at the spectacle of it all…

While 1917 isn’t a movie that’s going to win any awards for character development or things of that nature, director Sam Mendes along with cinematographer Roger Deakins have crafted a visual stunner of a film that just might net Deakins yet another Oscar for his mantel.

At the height of the First World War, two young British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are given a seemingly impossible mission. In a race against time, they must cross enemy territory and deliver a message that will stop a deadly attack on hundreds of soldiers—Blake’s own brother among them.

There’s obviously no doubting that war is hell, 1917 is really the first film since Saving Private Ryan to remind us of that and drop us all firmly in the shit that is armed conflict.

You could make the argument that the simplistic nature of the story here actually works against this experience as a whole, but I’d actually argue the opposite of that.  In a story that is essentially about getting from point A to point B, 1917 successfully accentuates how difficult even the simplest of tasks can be in the chaotic hells cape that is the battlefield which Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins make into something electric that evokes memories of not only a film like Saving Private Ryan but it adds in some darker visual moments that wouldn’t feel out of place in something like Apocalypse Now.

The script that Mendes co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns is a lean and mean affair that focuses on the interplay between the two leads (and rightly so) rather than any historical minutia of that battle.  Rather this is a story of two men given a nearly impossible task in service of their fellow soldiers.  That’s why films like this actually can resonate on an emotional level because it’s never about who won what battle where, but it’s about the stories of the men fighting them.

With an obviously simple yet solid narrative in place, where this movie excels in its visuals; setting the film as one continuous shot in this instance was a master stroke because it’s what allowed a story that ran the risk of being somewhat familiar taking on a whole new edge.  Whipping in and out of the trenches never being 100% certain of what was around the next corner makes this experience all the more electric.  We’d easily recommend that you watch this on as big a screen and in as loud of a theatre as possible as this certainly wasn’t made to be watched on anyone’s phone or tablet, this film works at optimal efficiency when you are immersed from head to toe in the whole damn thing.

George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman do a decent job of anchoring the narrative throughout and we easily buy them as two scared young men not only trying to serve for king and country but survive it all at the same time.  There’s admittedly a bit of stunt casting throughout the film in some small moments and while it doesn’t wholly take away from the entire experience it could have been improved had it gone with some slightly simpler casting.

Ultimately, 1917 will probably only register on the lower end of the spectrum with some of the more classic war films of our time, but it is undoubtedly something that deserves to be experienced as large and as loud as one possible can.

1917 opens to a limited release (including Toronto) on Christmas Day; and opens wide across the country on Jan. 10th.

This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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