The best war films show the enormity of the fight, as well as a more personal story that magnifies the stakes for an individual soldier, drawing us into a battle’s meaning or dangers or, as the case may be, futility.
“1917” accomplishes these feats, making it one of the finest war movies in years, and among the most outstanding that will ever be made about the increasingly distant World War I of a century ago.
It’s also the surprise winner last weekend of the Golden Globe Awards for best drama and best director.
“The Great War,” or the “European War” (as it was known by many for the soil on which it was fought), certainly had its moments of meaningfulness, as well as futility, as shown by filmmaker Sam Mendes.
He gives us great perspective, noting it as a war featuring technological advancements, like a machine gun, that would allow a man to kill another a half-mile away but not the technology to communicate with comrades fewer than 100 feet away.
The Academy Award-winning writer-director of dramas (“American Beauty”), action-thrillers (“Skyfall”) and a previous war film (“Jarhead”) returns to that genre with a tribute to his grandfather, a hero of WWI.
Mendes does so in a manner that will always set “1917” apart from all war movies that have come before: It is filmed in a way that makes it look like all we see for two hours is one continuous camera shot.
The set-up is simple: A pair of young British soldiers are given orders to set out across several miles of French countryside to stop a battle that will likely result in the massacre of 1,600 men from taking place.
It’s a man-on-a-mission story, which we’ve seen many times before, but told in a way we’ve never seen before.
Through his young actors — George MacKay (“Captain Fantastic”) and Dean-Charles Chapman (“Game of Thrones”) — Mendes sends these two lance corporals into danger as if imagining: This is what it must have looked like for my grandfather.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ cameras take us into the trenches with them, to the front line and into German enemy territory and across a once-idyllic landscape that has become a muddy bog of a wasteland with danger around every corner.
The experience is unmistakably that of an audience feeling as though it is joining a first-person shooter video game, always fighting to advance to the next level, surviving while being shot at, while buildings fall and tunnels collapse.
Not to mention dodging bodies (and assorted blown-off body parts) and battling Mother Nature, remarkable hunger and rats the size of cats.
The imagery is frequently disturbing but not excessive despite the authenticity of the war wounds. Sometimes it’s just shocking to see the chaos of grenades and trip-wires.
It all hammers home the futility and brutality of a war that cost upwards of 20 million lives between soldiers and civilians.
“1917” is a movie that finds occasional beauty, too, from Thomas Newman’s brilliant score to the discovery of a baby that is a moment of innocence amid the madness.
The only drawback is the lack of character development, as we don’t get to know these brave men better, which is a shame.
Of course, these men don’t have a lot of time to talk.
There are star cameos sprinkled in, from Colin Firth’s general issuing the initial order to Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott and Richard Madden in an assortment of roles.
But the relative anonymity of the two leads is perfect for a film about the grunt’s view of war, and the power of one person to make a difference, and a technical achievement that puts us right there in the French mud on the front line.