1917 breaks into a crowded genre of World War movies with a one-shot masterpiece following the lives of two young soldiers experiencing the atrocities of war in real time. A race against the clock will save the lives of their allies or send them all to certain death.
Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are messengers among countless British soldiers stuck in the trenches of the Hindenberg Line. While the great war seems nearly over, and there's excitement for one last push to finally route the Germans, General Erinmore (Colin Firth) receives intelligence via aerial photographs that the recent German retreat is a ploy to lead the British soldiers into a well-fortified trap.
With the field telecommunications cut off, General Erinmore tasks Schofield and Blake to personally deliver this intelligence to Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) so that he can call off the impending assault before he and his battalion are mercilessly annihilated.
On April 6th, 1917, Schofield and Blake set out on a race against the clock through no-man's-land and booby-trapped enemy trenches to deliver their message. As they dip above and below ground, the weather changes from fair to foul, and the people and situations they encounter grow more maddening, thoughtlessly violent, and sad. Whether or not they accomplish their task, their brave journey leads them on a personal discovery of the true darkness of mankind.
Writer & Director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) offers something many other films have been unable to capture, uncertain chaos of the horrific reality rather than a neatly ordered summary of why war is bad. The camera neatly whips all over the place to capture the protagonists' reactions to some of the more awful bits of what's in store for them. Co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful) adds a much-needed woman's touch to humanize the characters.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, Blade Runner 2049) shoots the movie as if it is filmed in one seamless shot, using bleak colors and occasionally an over the shoulder perspective adds a thrilling video game element which engages the audience while building a palpable tension.
Whether or not another World War movie was needed, the core of this film is all about communication, and the frantic need for the two heroes to communicate their message so that they can save the lives of countless allies. While this could be an allegory that speaks to the necessity of the endeavor (are the heroes actually running through danger trying to tell the modern audience to stop fighting?) the plot device works best set in 1917, when communication technology was still patchy at best, and decided the fate of many men.
Ultimately, 1917 succeeds in every category it was aiming to impress: a noble tale of heroism, a frightening nightmare come to life, a gripping tale of humanity in a world of monsters. It will thus impress a broad swathe of audiences, especially those already drawn to war movies.