Sam Mendez’s “1917” is an excellent manifestation of the raw power contained within a simple story. In an extremely controlled and limited view, this film somehow manages to capture the immense scope and fury of the drama of World War I without losing any of the remarkably personal intensity that comes from the story itself. For the entire film, the camera walks in lockstep with the two protagonists, but the dedication to the idea of the “one-shot” film, while it has the potential to be artifice for the sake of artifice, in this particular film seems so natural to the story and experience that in retrospect, it would seem jarring if it had been filmed any other way.
The movie follows two men: Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) as they are sent on a mission to halt a British attack from falling into a deadly ambush in the waning days of WWI. The premise of the film is as simple as its execution within the plot itself. One of the remarkable virtues of the film is that it does not feel the need to over-dramatize what is already dramatic. Rather than filling up the run-time with grand speeches about the importance of the mission to the overall direction of the war, it is a simple directive accepted with a simple “yes.” No further establishment is forthcoming, or, for that matter, needed. The difficulties the men encounter for the next two hours are more than enough on their own, and the movie has good enough graces to know that those struggles just need to be shown, not explained.
If there is a centralized “theme” to the story, it might be as simple as “ordinary life becomes poignant in the encounter with the extraordinary.” That “extraordinary” can be beautiful or terrible, and sometimes both at once, crescendoing into something for which the most appropriate word could only be “sublime.” In its own small, yet significant ways, the plot plays with the traditional expectations of what a “story” ought to be; yet in each case the small subversions seem to be done in the name of the simple idea that life itself doesn’t always neatly fit into a pre-packaged narrative. It is still a remarkable story, but it is also, in its own intimate way, a unique one.
There is a certain amount of irony in the film, for many of its elements are so understated that they seem to run counter to the power the audience feels that the movie has achieved when it comes to an end. There are slight touches deftly incorporated throughout, the power of which is experienced better than I could ever explain in a review. There is a simple significance in the fact that one of the characters looks exactly like the classic angular, laconic, silently sorrowful faces in all the images of British soldiers of the First World War. A simple canteen of milk at one point makes all of the difference in the world to the intimate setting in which it is placed. Throughout, the most ordinary of human actions are made profound for the simple fact that they exist in such a terrible situation.
At the end of this Odyssey (for so it seems), the small drama runs headlong into the grand machinery of the larger war effort and is shown for its respective scale. But again, if anything, its intensity is felt all the more deeply for its relative insignificance. The story, much like the central character, has no illusions as to its own self-importance. It never needs to be more than it is, for what it is is the simple story of being in one of the most monumentally horrible situations man has ever created for himself. That is enough. The tale itself is of ultimate insignificance to the grand sweep of war or history, but of utmost importance for the individual mired within it.
I write these reviews because I love film, storytelling, and cinema as an art in pursuit of truth and beauty. On a more personal level, I simply like writing and thinking about the themes and ideas of movies. However, if you would like to support me in this endeavor, I do greatly appreciate your support!