“1917” is an epic personal drama

1917 (George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman) – It has been more than a century since the end of what H.G. Wells called the “war to end all wars.”  How could a movie about World War I possibly find an audience in the country that has gone to war too many times to count in the last 100 years?

1917 is a very personal account of the war.  The film tells the story of a pair of British soldiers charged with alerting forward troops about the trap the Germans have laid for the good guys.  Shot almost exclusively with Steadicam, the technology allowing moving cameras to track the subject on screen without herky-jerky movement, it follows the pair as they try to reach their colleagues through the wasteland created by combat.  Be prepared to see carnage – human and otherwise.

When most of us think of war, we think of big battles.  War movies follow familiar patterns and are often big, star-studded spectacles like Tora, Tora, Tora, Midway, and The Longest Day.  Recent films like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and Green Zone tend to take a small slice of a war and examine it closely with box office stars in the lead (think Matt Damon, Jeremy Renner, and Jessica Chastain).

1917 is different.  The only stars in this film, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth, appear in short cameos.  The lead actors, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, are unknowns just like the grunts who fight wars.  Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) manages to create a “little” film on a massive set with some of the most impressive special effects and computer graphics ever seen outside those cookie-cutter comic book movies.

For two hours, Mendes creates the agony, fear, and horror of war through the eyes of these two soldiers, (SPOILER ALERT): one doesn’t make it).  The audience assumes the mission will be accomplished but the obstacles to success seem overwhelming.  Do they make it in time to save the 1,600 men whose lives depend on them?  The outcome is far from certain.  And as we know, war is hell.  At the heart of every war is a person, often not a natural hero, following orders and trying to stay alive and serve his/her country.  That is what 1917 is really about.

Mendes creates a powerful, tense, exhilarating, exhausting drama that brings tears and frustration, sadness and hopelessness. In short, it creates a moving moviegoing experience of the highest order that is one of the leading contenders for the Best Picture Oscar and several others.

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