World War I went down at such a strange cusp in human history—the politics, the evolving technology, the rapidly changing world—that it wound up trapped between modernist experimental ideas and the tail end of aging battlefield tactics. The weaponry, for example, was the most lethal and advanced ever conceived at the time, and those who used it were so new to the equipment that the violence borne down from all sides was some new kind of horrific.
Director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) knows this intimately, because his newest, the harrowing 1917, turns out to be based on a true story related by his grandfather Alfred, who was really there in the trenches of France when the German army enacted a strategic retreat to sow discord, false confidence and confusion among the British troops.
We’re thrown into the fray immediately as Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are ordered by a high-ranking general to carry a ceasefire letter across enemy lines to a hubristic colonel hellbent on pushing the perceived advantage and dug in with 1,600 men some miles away. If they fail, Chapman and Schofield are told, it’ll be a massacre; they’ll need to go on foot, and the stakes are even higher as Blake’s older brother is meant to lead a garrison into battle at the new front line.
Much has been made of Mendes’ seemingly cut-free film, and one really must see it to believe it. 1917 is a technical marvel both in terms of -immersion and pacing, but this is no meathead, glory of war nonsense crammed with action scenes and bulging muscles. The violence plays out more on a macro scale, and the conditions -facing our heroes are actually few and rather muted; the tone is one of quiet desperation more than it is of fearless heroes meting out righteous bullets at a faceless enemy. In fact, 1917 does not glorify or try to justify war, it simply tells a story contained therein.
It’s not all grand. Sometimes a massive scene crammed with extras wears thin, seemingly drawn out to justify the large scope. Nobody listens to anyone, either, and a scene with a mud-bound truck just feels pointless. Of course, it’s possible Mendes was trying to honor his grandfather by including smaller events, and they even sort of humanize some of the nameless soldiers. But the true surprise of the film are the moments of beauty that sneak up on us: cherry blossoms sailing through the wind, a bucket of milk discovered undisturbed, new life growing from the rubble of a destroyed country town—hope, above all else.

+Immersive and intense; shot beautifully
-Ultimately very little story; we never get a real feel for the characters

Directed by Mendes
With Chapman and MacKay
Violet Crown, Regal (both locations), R, 119 min.