2019 was the Year of Ambition at the movies. In “The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese told the story of a mob-fixer that spanned five decades using just one actor per role — and lasted 3 ½ hours. The Russo Brothers wrapped up an era of “The Avengers” with the gargantuan “Endgame,” which also had a 3-½-hour runtime.
Now comes Sam Mendes’ World War I epic “1917.” It clocks in at a comparably slim 120 minutes, but nonetheless manages to be grander than those other films: in emotional heft, technical innovation and with visuals that will be seared onto your retinas. “1917” is a modern war classic and one of the best movies of the year.
For the story of two British soldiers’ treacherous mission across enemy lines in France, Mendes gave himself and cinematographer Roger Deakins a similarly dangerous directive: Shoot and edit the film to appear as though it’s a single shot.
Before the know-it-alls raise their hands, yes, continuous films have been made before, most notably Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning “Birdman” in 2014. But Michael Keaton yelling at a critic in a bar is one thing. The horrors of the battlefield are very much another, and the seemingly uncut motion here will blow your mind.
You react to the two brave Brits racing through a mile of cramped trenches, running across corpse-strewn No Man’s Land and, most impossibly, being nearly hit by a plane like you’ve just seen David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear. How’d they do that?! But it’s more than Mendes and Co. flexing their biceps. While the movie’s style starts off as wow, it transforms into scorchingly intimate storytelling.
George MacKay, 27, plays Schofield, a soldier charged alongside his friend Blake (22-year-old Dean-Charles Chapman) with delivering a message to a distant division to halt an attack against the Germans. Their UK compatriots are walking into an ambush and thousands of lives may be lost.
The general who gives them their mission is played by Colin Firth, the first of several famous British actors — Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch, among them — who, while solid, are outshone by MacKay and Chapman’s towering turns.
When Schofield encounters a folk singer serenading a forest of stone-faced soldiers, or when he gives all his rations to the caretaker of an orphaned French baby, you’ll wonder why we haven’t seen more of the marvelous Mr. MacKay. And if that doesn’t get you, his determination in the explosive finale will.
The sequences I’m describing are mostly wordless, and yet following Schofield and Blake ceaselessly from Point A to Point B is still a remarkably full and textured experience, not unlike watching a solitary person at a cafe. A stare off into the unseen distance speaks volumes.
Most of that credit goes to Mendes for balancing the tech and the acting technique. The director has had great recent success with stage productions, such as “The Ferryman” and “The Lehman Trilogy,” but his movies since “American Beauty” — scratches head — have left room for improvement. However, “1917” is filmmaking at its best and most piercingly alive. Next time your pessimistic friend tells you there’s no reason to leave the couch anymore, drag them straight into the car and go see this.