By Daniel Dunaief
The film “1917” is a good news, bad news movie experience.
In a race against time, World War I soldiers Lance Cpl. Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Cpl. Schofield (George MacKay) maneuver through dangerous, German-controlled territory to stop an attack by the British that is destined to fail.
The good news for the Universal Pictures movie, which was written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns and Sam Mendes, is that it is a tour de force in direction and cinematography. Audiences track the movements of Schofield and Blake, who has a vested interest in completing a mission that will also likely save his brother, so closely that they feel as if they are on the battlefield. The soldiers trudge through mud, hunch low to avoid incoming bullets, and wade through icy cold water during their difficult mission.
The relatively unknown actors do an incredible job as everymen, portraying the soldiers asked to do the impossible with resources often limited to their survival instincts and their reliance on each other.
Directed by Mendes, the movie includes a few heart-stopping moments, as audience members in a packed theater hold their breaths along with the actors to avoid giving away their position to the unseen but omnipresent enemy.
Even the scenes that don’t involve bullets and combat have a gritty feel. The camera moves through cramped trenches, where the spaces narrow in some areas to places where barely two people can fit shoulder to shoulder.
The film succeeds in portraying so many elements of the horrors of the battlefield. The enormous responsibility of saving 1,600 men weighs heavily on the two soldiers. The film immerses the audience completely in the time period, the action and the goal.
The bad news is that the script is noticeably thin. We don’t know much about either character and, apart from the set up lines uttered by Colin Firth as Gen. Erinmore and Benedict Cumberbatch as Col. Mackenzie, the script isn’t nearly as memorable as the visuals.
Indeed, apart from compelling music, which includes an original score from Thomas Newman that was nominated for an Oscar, the movie could easily have been a silent film with a few subtitles sprinkled between the visuals.
As a movie watching experience, “1917” is immersive and compelling, but its visuals show a better story than its thin script.
Moving from one horrifying and dangerous scene to another, we feel as if we’re running alongside strangers we would like to succeed, if only to reach their important destination and save other troops for whom we have almost as much information as the two lance corporals.
At times, the R-rated movie has overtones with other war films, like “Gallipoli,” a Mel Gibson film with a far superior script, and even with “Saving Private Ryan,” the Steven Spielberg directed epic with Tom Hanks.
In many scenes in “1917,” the effort, amid raining bullets and bombs that fall everywhere, make it seem impossible to survive. Some of the bullet and bomb dodging strains credibility.
The film also includes a quietly touching scene between Schofield and a random French woman, who is caring for an infant. The dialog, however, doesn’t make much sense, though, as she speaks only French and he speaks English, and yet they seem to understand each other.
Looking past the shortcomings of “1917,” the film offers an engaging visual experience, even if we don’t become invested in the characters whose singular mission forms the action and scenery-driven plot.
Winner of 3 Academy Awards (Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing and Best Visiual Effects), “1917” is now playing in local theaters.