Sam Mendes, the director behind the James Bond films “Skyfall” and “Spectre,” took home an Oscar for his 1999 directorial debut “American Beauty.” 20 years later he’s poised to do it again with a film inspired by the World War I stories told by his grandfather. “1917” is an immersive experience that plunges the viewer into the trenches along with two young British soldiers (George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman) who are sent on a mission behind enemy lines to deliver a message in the hope of saving 1,600 soldiers. Resembling one continuous shot intensified by Roger Deakins’ striking cinematography, the film moves at a swift pace keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.
There are only a couple of moments in the visceral film that offer respite from the unremitting action. One takes place at the beginning as Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) relax under a tree in the beautiful French countryside. The ravages of war have yet to show their ugly side in this part of the country where yellow flowers accent the lush green landscape.
The young soldiers are interrupted by Sgt. Sanders (Daniel Mays) who informs Blake to “pick a man and bring his kit” so he chooses his napping friend Schofield and the two are off to see General Erinmore (Colin Firth) who has made a special trip down to the regiment to personally assign a dangerous but crucial mission to the Lance Corporals.
“You have a brother in the Second Battalion” states Erinmore to Blake, which he confirms. The General then explains that the Battalion is about to walk into a German ambush, “Your orders are to deliver a message calling off tomorrow morning's attack. If you don't, we will lose 1,600 men, your brother among them. Do you think you can get there in time?” Blake, who is good with maps, answers “Yes, sir” without hesitation.
And so, the two emissaries begin their trek across war-torn Northern France riddled with dead bodies, animal carcasses, and remnants of the German army, to find the 2nd Devons led by Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to deliver Erinmore’s orders. Evocative of “Saving Private Ryan,” the race against time begins with Deakins’ camera encompassing Blake and Schofield making the audience the third member of the perilous journey.
From the miles of trenches to the bombed-out landmarks, the painstaking detail to accuracy is impressive, this is the fifth time that production designer Dennis Gassner has worked with Mendes. Along the journey the two soldiers encounter various characters who appear on screen for only minutes, but those roles are filled by prominent actors who leave an impact in the short amount of screen time. Apart from Firth and Cumberbatch, the film features cameos by Mark Strong as a wise and compassionate Captain, Richard Madden as Blake’s brother, a Lieutenant in the Second Battalion, and the hot priest from “Fleabag,” Andrew Scott, as the weary and fatigued Lieut. Leslie who warns the Lance Corporals not to be fooled by the lack of Germans, out of sight does not mean out of mind.
Filled with plenty of thrilling action sequences, nail-biting tension, and moments of beauty as in one scene where the gospel folk song “Wayfaring Stranger” permeates the air as a soldier sings to his battalion just before they head to the front line, “1917” is breathtaking to behold and a major contender for Oscar’s top award.
Opens Friday January 10