Recent war films have proven they don’t need a whole lot of depth to connect with viewers.
Take David Ayer’s “Fury” or Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” Audiences related to those films’ characters with very little backstory because of their perilous situation. They’re young, inexperienced, frightened and facing off with death because of a conflict they had no control over.
“1917” is another harrowing entry into the genre, poking the audience’s raw emotions as its follows its two leads, Lance Cpl. William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Cpl. Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman).
They’re two young British soldiers in World War I commanded to go to great lengths in a short period of time to stop their fellow brothers in arms from being ambushed. Showcased in one shot (well, one that’s obviously cut in multiple places), we follow them from the treacherous opening quest through no-man’s land to bunkers to abandoned barnhouses and bombed-out fields, with the presence of danger looming in every scene.
Directed by Sam Mendes (“Skyfall”), “1917” is an engrossing theatrical experience in line with other movies centered around a hopeless crisis (“Gravity,” “Black Hawk Down”). Scenes like an investigation into a dark cellar and bloody trenches drip with tension and anxiety.
While its stars do a competent job playing scrappy friends on a doomed mission, the real focus of this is the technical crew. Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins shows why he’s the best in the business, flexing his camera muscles as soldiers creep down alleys lit by bomb fire and run across a field as they prepare to storm it. The sound editing has bullets, bombs and screaming soldiers in individual speakers, putting the audience in the middle of the mayhem.
Sometimes, all of this going on feels like sensory overload, to the point where the audience feels less like it’s watching a journey and more like a scene out of a video game, where the player is stealthily outrunning a group of bad guys. Then it takes a breath, as it hangs with a group of soldiers or a woman with a child and achieves levity.
In both good and bad ways, “1917” feels exhausting. I have rarely been more tense at a movie this year, but also felt kept at a distance from the characters when it was over. It reminded me of Peter Jackson’s dazzling World War I documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” that used unidentified, disembodied voices to narrate the horrors and triumphs of war. I connected with the treacherous situation more than anyone onscreen and left wondering what this all was for.
— Andrew Gaug | St. Joe Live