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"1917"
(2019) (George Mackay, Dean-Charles Chapman) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Two British WWI soldiers must deliver a message deep in enemy territory to prevent their own forces -- that includes one of their brothers -- from advancing into a deadly German trap.
PLOT:
It's April 1917 and Lance Corporal William Schofield (GEORGE MacKAY) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (DEAN-CHARLES CHAPMAN) are two British soldiers who've just been ordered to deliver an important and timely message to other British forces behind enemy lines. It seems that while the Germans have retreated from their side of no man's land, they've done so strategically to set a trap for the advancing Brits.

With all lines of communication having been cut, the only way to stop two battalions of sixteen-hundred soldiers -- that includes Blake's brother among them -- from advancing into a massacre is for Schofield and Blake to get their first and warn them of the trap. Facing daunting odds and the likelihood that neither will even make it that far, the two soldiers set out through no man's land and into enemy territory, determined to accomplish their task.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
For quite obvious reasons, very few feature-length films are shot in one consecutive take. Beyond the logistics involved of having the camera in the right place at every single moment, there's the fact that the performers and the rest of the tech crew can't mess up at any moment or else everything has to start from scratch.

Of course, prior to the introduction of digital video, such a one-take shot wasn't an option. Accordingly, when Alfred Hitchcock first introduced that shooting style back in 1948 with "Rope," he had the camera pass by foreground objects that momentarily covered the lens and thus allowed for a film stock switch.

The critically acclaimed "Birdman" from a few years back did the same, but it was harder to tell where the cuts occurred and the camera was far more active than in Hitchcock's film. But neither can hold a candle to what's been done in "1917," a WWI war movie where director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins and the rest of their crew drop us right into the middle of the action.

From what I've read, there are a few cuts in what otherwise looks like a single take, but I didn't see them. Not that I would have, mind you, as the offering grabs you from the get-go and doesn't let up until the end credits start to roll nearly two hours later. It's quite the cinematic experience and ends up being one of the best films of 2019 despite one minor quibble.

And that involves the catalyst part of the premise where two British soldiers -- played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman -- are ordered to embark on an arduous journey through no man's land and then behind enemy lines to deliver an order for two battalions of men to stand down, lest they rush forth into a deadly German trap.

That part is fine, and Mendes has stated that the screenplay that he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns is based on conversations he had with his grandfather -- who served in the war -- about something loosely similar to what we experience. My only issue -- and one that's easy to both forgive and forget once the film starts moving forward -- is that if 1,600 lives are at stake if the message doesn't get to the front in time, I imagine more than just two soldiers would be given that all-important responsibility, what with the likelihood of them being injured or killed along the way being quite high.

We do hear that the Germans cut all means of transmitting such a message along the ground, but if I were in command I would have ordered a plane or two with such "Stop! It's a trap!" messages to be flown to and drop such warnings down all over the battalions. A simple line of dialogue about such a mission having even less of a chance of succeeding for whatever reason could have sufficed, but Mendes and Wilson-Cairns then include a dogfight sequence as seen on the ground by the two traveling soldiers along the way. And it's one that pivots the film into an unexpected direction.

Beyond that minor bit of nitpicking -- that really came more to me in hindsight than as the film played out -- the rest is a riveting experience, fueled by good performances, a terrific score by Thomas Newman, and unrivaled technical prowess in terms of moving that camera around for the duration.

It's a completely engrossing, captivating and immersive experience filled with Deakins-created visuals that will be seared into your memory for some time to come (including a nighttime scene featuring flares, a bombed-out village, and dangers potentially luring about in the ever-moving shadows).

My number two pick for best film of the year and number one for best cinematography, "1917" is quite the experience that beautifully shows the ugliness of war. It rates as an 8 out of 10.




Reviewed December 2, 2019 / Posted December 25, 2019


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