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'1917' Is a Movie That Feels Like a Videogame—in a Good Way

War movies are a dime a dozen. So are movies touted for their technical feats. (De-aging, anyone?) So, given that 1917 is a World War I film that employs the trick of looking like it is a single 120-minute shot, it would be easy to greet director Sam Mendes’ latest with yawns and/or eye rolls, to treat it as just another big, boring epic released for the sole purpose of winning Oscars. Such dismissals, though, would be unwarranted. Instead of being the latest installment in Hollywood’s long-running obsession with war flicks, 1917 is a compelling human drama about the horrors of battle told with such technical and artistic mastery that it’s not just one of the best movies of 2019—it may go down as Mendes' and cinematographer Roger Deakins’ shared masterwork.

The film follows two young men, Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), soldiers on the Western Front who receive a near-impossible task: Carry a message across enemy lines to a British battalion that's at risk of being ambushed ahead of a planned attack against German troops. In a race against time—and against the unseen enemy—the pair have the fates of 1,600 troops on their shoulders, one of whom (in a plot point reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning World War II drama Saving Private Ryan) is Blake’s own brother. Thrust into their deadly mission, the pair must traverse the deadly and blown-apart battlefields of France at the height of the war, not only to potentially save a great number of their compatriots but also to avoid a terrible turning point in the war to end all wars.

What begins as a two-hander hero’s journey is a surprisingly intimate thriller, with the two soldiers maneuvering through trenches, crossing enemy lines, and witnessing the aftermath of battle up close. The result is haunting and brutal; Mendes doesn’t have to show us the battles that have taken place, only the bodies left in their wake. The effect gives 1917 the tension of a horror film, as if at any moment the corpses could reanimate and stop the heroes before they ever reach the Brits. As the continuous-shot effect unfolds, the camera following Schofield and Blake from all angles, Mendes places his viewers squarely into the mouth of war’s madness. The Great War, the 20th century’s first international conflict, unfolded on a grand theatrical scale and was perhaps humanity’s first horrific lesson on the brutality of modern combat; the technological advances were great, but also massively destructive. Throughout 1917’s two-hour runtime, evidence of the war’s violent absurdity is abundant.

Perhaps that is why, at times, watching it feels like playing a first-person shooter in the vein of Call of Duty or Battlefield. Like the recently released Gears 5, Mendes’ film wants the audience to experience the trauma of war along with Schofield and Blake, not just learn about it like a history lesson. Most of his viewers will never experience such extremes; there is no one alive today who can say they experienced this specific conflict firsthand. The film, then, isn’t just a war thriller; it’s a testament to the soldiers who risked their lives to participate in a fight that a century later most people could not even explain. Schofield and Blake’s task is simply a plot device to move them across the battlefield in a race against time; the details matter less than the horrors that they—and we—see. Likewise, the reason these millions of men fought against one another matters much less than the sad fact that they did, leaving in the battles’ wakes a war-torn continent piled up with anonymous bodies.

Just before the end credits roll, a simple dedication appears onscreen to Alfred Mendes, the director’s grandfather, who served in the British infantry; it reveals the film to be a personal one for its director. His dedication is visible in 1917’s tightly choreographed and blocked sequences; his background as a theater director is recognizable as Schofield and Blake rush through trenches filled with hundreds of other soldiers in their race to save hundreds more, whom we never really see. But 1917 is far from a passion project driven by a single auteur, as Deakins’ elegant camerawork is evident throughout the film. His long shots, edited together to look like one long take, are a feat, a new spectacular achievement to add to the canon of war movies.

The theater of warfare has never been displayed so beautifully and so personally, allowing 1917’s viewers to experience firsthand the monumental event that many of their ancestors saw for themselves—either in the battles of World War I or the many international conflicts that followed. Wars will continue, but never on such a personal scale; soldiers will fight from a distance by land, sea, air, drone. They may never fully comprehend their actions as a result. Mendes’ film provides a reminder of the distinctly human horrors of war by placing audiences directly in its trenches, the closest many will ever get to watching this level of barbarity themselves.

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