Family stories have a way of resonating with us. They act as vessels into another world that we’re able to know and experience through the scope of our ancestors. And their impact can be profound, just ask Academy Award Winning filmmaker Sam Mendes (American Beauty and Skyfall) whose latest work is inspired from the World War I tales told to him by his late grandfather when he was just a boy. Those stories have stuck with Mendes for decades and, by using his unique visual mastery, have thrust the war epic 1917 into the heart of the Best Picture race.
When Lance Corporal Blake (Game of Throne’s Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (Captain Fantastic’s George MacKay) are summoned by a superior officer in the midst of the First World War, they could never have imagined the assignment placed in their hands. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) informs the men that an attack is planned for dusk, but they have just received word that it’s a trap by the Germans and more than 1,600 men are preparing to be slaughtered, one of which is Blake’s older brother. In a race against time that requires the soldiers to journey deep into enemy territory along the most direct route to their fellow officers, Blake and Schofield encounter the crushing brutalities of war at every turn, with hopes of surviving this dangerous mission and delivering the General’s orders to stop the attack before dawn arrives.
Sam Mendes’ 1917 is a completely immersive experience that takes audiences to the front lines of battle and into the trenches of one the most gruesome wars in the history of the world. Filmed in such a way that it appears to be one single shot where the camera never leaves these two men, Mendes has most certainly cemented himself and his film in the Best Director and Best Picture races. 1917 oozes with technical mastery and checks nearly all the boxes for Oscar voters. And while I too loved the riveting perspective of the film, I was far less impressed by Mendes’ script. The story becomes hamstrung by the decision of this stylistic approach which disallows an expansive use of subplots and secondary characters. Forcing us to travel beside these men essentially makes the majority of the story simply about their experiences. This can be mesmerizing at times and certainly helps with the film’s pacing, but it also leaves more to be desired in terms of developed and arcing story. I wonder if 1917 would have been better served by including a handful of massively long takes to generate a similar feel but still made traditional cuts to help broaden the story and characters. Either way, we can’t refute the overall impact and technical greatness behind another superb effort from an often-overlooked filmmaker.