“1917” feels like “Dunkirk.” It’s trying to be the same thing, but I wouldn’t call it a true rip-off. Mendes makes a thriller that uses its suspense to convey the feeling of being in war. As a thriller, “1917” is great. It creates constant tension and never lets up.
The plot is simple and straightforward. During World War I, two regular, English soldiers are assigned a mission out of the blue. They have to cross on foot through unknown terrain to call off an attack before it can be launched in the morning.
From there the story starts and it never stops. It has your attention from start to finish. When the action does take a break, it actually feels like a break, for the characters and us, the audience. We both get a chance to breathe. Adding to this constant action is that the film is made to look like it was all filmed in one long take. There is never one traditional cut. The filmmakers didn’t have to use this technique, but the premise is used well and doesn’t feel like a gimmick. It gives you the perspective of the characters, who just want this mission to end.
The atmosphere it creates for WWI can be unnerving, even when there is no immediate danger on screen. We see our characters as they cross through blown up buildings, fields of bullet-riddled cows and trenches filled with rotting corpses and rats. It’s unnerving even in the quiet moments, when our characters have a moment to breathe. In these safe moments, we never feel safe.
The atmosphere can be horrific at times, both because of what the characters experience and what they have to do to survive. We feel for the characters as they are put in an impossible situation. So even when they make mistakes or come up short at times, there is no judgement. Realistically, as normal people, what else were they supposed to do? If anything, it makes you truly value what they are able to accomplish.
Mendes clearly wanted to have anti-war elements present in “1917.” And he is able to balance that while making the film entertaining, which is hard to do. It’s a great thriller, yet it never makes you think World War I was fun. Another piece to this movie being anti-war is the year it takes place, 1917. World War I ended in 1918—the war will continue long after this mission.
But the weakness of “1917” is that it doesn’t work beyond being a thriller. As a movie, it doesn’t have much of a point to it. At least, not an original one. “1917” doesn’t truly say anything about war, especially on World War I, that hasn’t been said before in film or in other media. The situation, the characters and even the atmosphere can be found in other places. It’s not a bad thing that Mendes creates a WWI movie similar to other WWI movies, it just doesn’t get any points for originality.
“1917” is trying to be a great film. Everything points to it—Roger Deakins’ cinematography, the well-designed sets, hundreds of extras and Mendes’ dedication of this film to his grandfather, who served in WWI. There are great things in this movie. But when it comes to the story, “1917” never quite reaches the bar it sets for itself. It’s trying to be one of the greats, and it’s not. Though it does come close.
“1917” is an extremely well-made movie. It is very effective, and at times truly unnerving. It’s entertaining while also balancing a strong, anti-war atmosphere. It is definitely one of the best movies to come out last year, but it’s not the best movie of 2019.