Score 7 of 7 – 1917 is an utterly unique, thoroughly fascinating movie experience. It pulls you in like few films do, gripping you and never letting you go. Tense, powerful, emotional, it’s an immersive and unforgettable experience, but one that comes with the caveat that it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war. Not as graphic and gritty as some recent war films have been, it’s still haunting and emotional, and easily the powerful and tense war film I’ve seen since Saving Private Ryan.
“I don’t think I’ve ever before experienced something like that at the movies.” That was the reaction of the friend I took to go to our screening of 1917. We were both excited to see it, but we completely unprepared for what we were about to experience. That is truly the word the best describes 1917; it is an experience. You don’t just passively watch this movie. Because of how it’s filmed, you feel like you are there, you feel what the characters are feeling, you feel like you are part of the mission, not just observing the mission. It’s a brilliant feat of filmmaking, and results in one of the most tense, visceral, emotional, and powerful war films I’ve seen.
Director Sam Mendes films 1917 as though it’s all done with one, smooth, continuous camera shot. The camera doesn’t really break away, there aren’t any edits, so the audience never gets to break away from these characters; where they journey, we journey. It makes for a far more intimate film, one that feel more personal because, in essence, we’re stuck with these two soldiers come what may. While an incredibly challenging feat to pull off, this “make the whole movie with just one camera shot” makes for a unique movie experience unlike any other. The pay off was well worth all the technical challenges the filmmaker and crew had to overcome to achieve this feat.
Of course, all of the camera magic in the world won’t cover up a lackluster story or poor performances. That’s especially true the main performances are the focus of the camera the entire film. Fortunately, 1917 sets stakes that are very simple but also very personal to our two main leads. This is not a huge, bombastic movie, but again, the simple plot, paired with ticking clock, makes for a tense and engaging plot that you can’t help but get invested in. Again, all of that can still fall apart without capable leads. Fortunately, Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are fantastic as regular Lance Corporals that get pulled into a special mission with high, and personal, stakes. They’re relatable, funny, and deliver some truly heartbreaking moments. Much better known stars make some nice cameo appearances throughout, but the story stands or falls on the shoulders of these two young men, and they deliver performances of a lifetime that fully deliver every gut-punch and nervous laugh. With their very capable performances, powerful music, and amazing cinematography, all the elements are here for a truly unforgettable movie viewing experience.
And that’s exactly what 1917 delivers, a truly unforgettable experience. It culminates with some ruminations on war and its inevitable outcome, or if there even is one. As one commander reflects on a new set of incoming orders, he grouses how it doesn’t really matter because someone in command will arbitrarily change their mind the next day and things won’t be any better, even if the soldiers seem to think they are. He concludes, “Hope is a dangerous thing.” It’s a striking statement, especially for something that’s usually put in a more positive context. Yet, the statement is not far off. Even the Bible warns of the dangers of hope, “Hope deferred makes a heart sick…” (Proverbs 13:12) In other words, it’s hard to keep hoping for something that never arrives, and if anything, such a hope eventually turns sour. Truth be told, our world seems to full of that right now. It wasn’t that long ago that political campaigns were being run on a simple platform, a platform of hope. But that hope was never really fully fulfilled. So then, in what shall we place our hope. Is there any point to hope? As always, it entirely depends in what that hope was placed. That’s why this time of year, Christmas, is so special. At this time of year we celebrate a hope that would not disappoint, one that would not leave us sour, and while it may not meet our expectations, it fulfilled everything we needed and then some. That hope was a small baby, born in a manger, in the shadow of a cross. That baby was the hope of humanity, the hope that humanity could finally be reconciled to God our creator. In time, when that baby was fully grown, through his brutal death and glorious resurrection, that hope was wonderfully fulfilled. Jesus, the great Hope of the World, is one in which we can confidently place our own hopes, without fear.
As for 1917, well, it’s probably one of the best movie experiences I’ve had in awhile, and it’s without hesitation my favorite movie of the year. It’s not exactly a “feel good” movie, so I wouldn’t say it’s one to rush out and see with the family for the holidays, more so because it’s not really family friendly (it is war, after all), but it’s definitely a must see, and if possible, one of those rare movies that’s better when experienced on the big screen.