If you thought Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was intense, director Sam Mendes’ 1917 is here to say, “Hold my beer.” That’s not a diss to Dunkirk, which was one of the best movies of 2017. But after witnessing another staggering war epic in the case of 1917, it feels like it’s in a league of its own. This largely is due to 1917 playing out like a one-shot movie. If you’re not familiar with that term, a one-shot movie is “a full-length movie filmed in one long take by a single camera, or manufactured to give the impression it was” (according to Wikipedia). And thanks to a combination of other impressive achievements that come together on the big screen, 1917 is not only filmmaking at its best, but it’s also the best movie of 2019, period.
The story of 1917 is simple: During the height of World War I, two British soldiers must race against time in order to deliver a message in enemy territory that could save the lives of over a thousand soldiers for a planned attack the next day; and one of the soldiers who is set to participate in this planned attack is the brother of one of the soldiers tasked with delivering the message. What might seem like a routine story soon turns into a tense roller coaster ride over the course of its two hour runtime that will have your heart racing until the credits roll. With danger lurking around every corner, military trench, and damaged building (and again, all of this being shown like it was done in one shot), it’s great that 1917 moves at such a brisk pace, thanks in large part to editor Lee Smith knowing that the audience will need to exhale sooner rather than later.
As intense as 1917 is, the most surprising aspect of the movie is how emotionally gripping it quickly becomes. Without spoiling anything, Mendes reels in the audience early as we invest our time with the two soldiers determined to get an imperative message into occupied France. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman play the two leading characters, Lance Corporals William Schofield and Tom Blake, both of whom give great performances that should not be overlooked. Maintaining the effect of a one-shot movie makes their performances just as impressive as everything else in 1917. Some notable actors make brief appearances throughout 1917, including Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Andrew Scott. But these well-known actors only help move the story from A to B as the camera almost never leaves the viewpoint of MacKay and Chapman.
On top of the one-shot aspect that makes 1917 so immersive, it’s also the best shot movie of 2019 thanks to another masterful job from cinematographer Roger Deakins. Keeping our sights on what’s important in this simple story, not a single shot is wasted nor is the hope of safety for our heroes anywhere in sight until the end. Even with the perpetual motion of moving from location to location, certain aspects of the film still pop out like eye candy for the viewer. Sure, we’ve seen the hell of what war has done to ravaged landscapes and the people that inhabited it in many prior war movies. But this one-shot approach still highlights the things that inspire the two heroes to keep moving without feeling out of touch since it all feels as if the story is moving in one singular motion; the close encounters, the characters offering wisdom or other views on the war, and pulsating moments that brighten the screen (literally), all weave together seamlessly and beautifully. One scene in particular is so astonishing, there is no telling how much work went into making it a reality. When you see it, you will know what I’m talking about. Accompanying the masterful work from Deakins is a grand score from famed composer Thomas Newman, which often feels either heroic or elegant.
1917 is without a doubt one of the best war movies ever made. Is it an easy experience? Absolutely not. In fact, some viewers will be relieved once the credits roll. But what Mendes has orchestrated here is nothing short of exceptional. Feats like this are why we go to the movies and why movies like 1917 will be remembered for years to come. Every aspect of this movie, from the directing to the cinematography, acting, score and everything else is Grade-A level work and must be experienced to the fullest in theater. But be prepared. You might want to bring a heart rate monitor just in case.