After his two-film directing stint for the James Bond 007 series, Sam Mendes took a little directing break before returning with 1917, a WWI film which is inspired by a story his paternal grandfather, Alfred Mendes, told him.

His latest film's gimmick is, like 2014's Birdman, shot using various long takes so that the final version appears as one long continuous shot. That's a difficult task to accomplish seamlessly but luckily Mendes has renowned Academy Award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins working with him, so the results are outstanding.

1917 stars George McKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch and is co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. It focuses on two British soldiers, Schofield (McKay) and Blake (Chapman), and their mission to deliver an important message ordering a battalion to call off a planned attack on enemy forces. The battalion consisting of 1600 troops, Blake's older brother (Madden) among them, is walking into a trap.

The story is simple but what allows 1917 to shine are the myriad of obstacles Schofield and Blake encounter. With it being WWI, anything can happen since danger can appear anywhere at anytime. Also, the mission is time sensitive; General Erinmore (Firth) asked the two young soldiers travel by foot. It's mesmerizing to witness how war can test the strongest of wills; in this case Mendes pits the wills of two men against the overwhelming treachery of war.

If nothing else, 1917 is just one of cinema's greatest technical achievements. A feature of this scale and magnitude (rumored $90 million budget) took plenty of planning because to make a 119-minute feature look like one very long continuous shot necessitates that. In contrast to Birdman, whereas the entire film takes place in and around a New York Broadway theater, 1917 uses multiple locations and never the same location twice. So, audiences are essentially a third soldier walking with and following Schofield and Blake as they fight, claw and scratch their way to their destination with nothing more than themselves and what little gear they're carrying.

From an artistic aspect, 1917 is surprisingly intimate. It's a war film without wall-to-wall action but it's also a moving drama without any backstory. Mendes relies on looming tension, comradery and survival instincts to provide drama, then combines that with strong performances from his two leads. McKay and Chapman convey their brotherhood well (let's face it, fighting together in a war breeds kinship) and simultaneously display bravery and fortitude in the face of fear and uncertainty. It's the foundation for all of 1917's drama and mirrors those same relationships in numerous other war-based stories (namely Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan).

A subtle subtext in 1917 is the sense of longing. Whether it's a longing to be home, longing to be with family, or simply longing to be away from death and devastation, Mendes injects the one thing everyone can relate to (resulting in a more compelling film). There are some memorable scenes (which I don't want to give away) which work on many levels as they turn 1917 into more than just a war film with game changing objective.

Having already won at the 77th Golden Globes, for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director, 1917 is one of the year's best. It will likely receive a few Academy Award nominations, despite (personally) it being slow at the beginning. It's worth a look just for its technical feats, which means it must be seen in a theater.

Mendes and Deakins (who, in my opinion, will win his second Oscar for Best Cinematography (out of an impressive 14 nominations) crafted a beautifully full cinematic experience that captures the tension and ugliness of war without passing judgment, and replaces that obvious commentary with basic (but moving) human needs and emotions.

4 stars out of 5


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