Time is the enemy, the tag line reads. But also mud. And also Germans, but time first, and mud second. Oh the mud. They trudge through it, slipping and sliding, it squishes between their toes and claims the corpses of men. I worry one of the men will lose his footing in the slippery, unforgiving mud and accidentally bayonet himself, or someone else. The sludge is real. You feel the dirt viscerally just as you feel the time urgently.
Oh the time. Time is the enemy you see. Two young soldiers on the Western front are given an impossible task. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) has a brother in another unit, an isolated regiment about to walk right into a trap. He and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) need to get to them before dawn to save the lives of 1600 men, but the journey to prevent their massacre is likely a suicide mission.
Director Sam Mendes executes this film with such mastery and technical prowess that it induces a state of anxiety, dread and hyper-vigilance in the viewer, immersing us quite brilliantly in the ethos of the battlefield. Most of the film feels like it’s done in a single take, and because we’re experiencing this nightmare in near real-time alongside the soldiers, the urgency and gravity of their mission infects us with constant tension and foreboding. Inevitably this sounds like a harrowing cinematic experience and it is, but one that’s deeply moving and conscientious and frankly impossible not to admire.
Cinematography by legendary Roger Deakins highlights the horror of war, the monotony of the mud, the pitted landscapes, and is particularly effective at night, when a village burns and is intermittently lit by flares. But his work with Mendes to seamlessly knit together shots to create a visual single take is surely worthy of the Oscar. And Thomas Newman’s score is similarly haunting, some of those trumpet swells literally responsible for a tightening in my chest.
My adrenaline was so successfully engaged that it wasn’t until the very end of the film that I finally indulged in a tear. My nerves were so keyed up that I probably didn’t take a full lung’s worth of breath until I was in the parking lot. 1917 is not easy to watch but boy is it easy to praise.