At the heart of Sam Mendes’ World War I movie “1917” is a beautiful trick: a brilliant feat of camera work (by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins) that causes us to believe that nearly its entire two hours was filmed in a continuous, unbreaking shot. Two young British soldiers — Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) — are sent on a mission across enemy territory to deliver an urgent message from a general: to call off a planned attack, potentially saving the lives of 1,600 men (one of whom is Blake’s brother). Off they race, through endless brown trenches, across barren fields, between weaving lines of countless soldiers, into No Man’s Land, through mud, craters, orchards, abandoned farmhouses, eerily quiet roads … and we race with them, seemingly in real time.
It’s a remarkable effect, and it contributes to the breathless intimacy of “1917,” an enormous war movie that feels very small indeed. (And it’s a tribute to Deakins’ artistry that the “continuous” shot seems absolutely natural; you forget about it after a while.) In essence, the movie feels like time spent with two very ordinary yet utterly heroic young men, who in between dodging hellish dangers spend time chatting — about rats, food, military medals (“It’s just a bit of bloody tin. It doesn’t make you special,” says Schofield), and how hard it is to go home on leave when you know you can’t stay. It was the right choice to go with little-known actors for these characters: MacKay and Chapman disappear into their roles, pulling us into the story. (Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch do good work in small roles, but the jolt of recognition interrupts our experience and changes it just a bit.)
Mendes doesn’t spare us the horrors of war — Schofield and Blake must make their way past trenches filled with dead bodies, haphazardly piled, with hunger and cold and mud ever-present. They speak little about those waiting for them at home; the thought of not returning is too much to bear. And while occasionally the film wanders a bit too far into sentimentality (a scene involving a baby feels like it crosses a plausibility line), watching “1917” is an emotional and moving experience. You think of these two young men as one minuscule piece of an enormous tragedy, filled with individual stories. And you watch mesmerized as two hours pass in an instant, returning to the present only when reading the film’s touching final dedication to the director’s grandfather: “For Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes / 1st Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps / who told us the stories.”
★★★½ “1917,” with George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Clare DuBurcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch. Directed by Sam Mendes, from a screenplay by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. 119 minutes. Rated R for violence, some disturbing images, and language. Opens Jan. 10 at multiple theaters.