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1917 inevitably leads to comparisons to Dunkirk, a similarly modern take on the atmospheric War movie; A campaign involving millions of men is transformed into a story of individuals; the war itself becomes a force of nature, a deadly storm that rages around them. In the case of 1917, that extends to the landscape itself, torn to pieces and utterly unrecognisable where the war has swept through it, and a pair of hapless lance Corporals stuck in the middle.
1917 is specifically about two runners, sent to deliver an urgent message to a distant Colonel. If they fail, said Colonel will lead 1800 men into a catastrophic ambush. They've got a nine hours to stop the doomed attack, and they've got to pass through no-man's land and enemy occupied territory to get there in time. The entire movie is presented as one continuous take, which helps maintain the sense of urgency throughout and keeps the perspective tight to its two main characters.
Long before we even see any Germans, there is a constant state of dread and tension. And then when it finally happens, gun shots bark in the distance and smash through the scenery around you and the heroes. We've been to a lot of battlefields in the movies, and they have to constantly find new ways to show it to us. 1917's best parts manage to do this, always keeping us in the firing line and never giving us a proper respite. But even between the fights, we are brought into some weird locales. In what is easily the best scene of the movie, we are shown an eerie nighttime city, lit entirely by flares in such a way as to turn the landscape into jagged shadows and ghostly white.
Where it doesn't work so well is within the downtime scenes, or rather the closest thing this movie has to them. In these, the movie depends on the charisma and chatter between its leads, and whilst it's all plausible dialogue, its workmanlike and un-engaging too. The movie includes a long, drawn out chance meeting with a French civilian, and though it serves as a much needed bit of humanity for the story, it kills the momentum of the movie, and I found myself wanting it to end. Also, a lot of individual scenarios, including that one with the French local, and one particular death scene, would otherwise be clichés in other war movies, and the novel perspective doesn't completely disguise the fact. Where the movie innovates with the conflict and visuals, it sometimes lets down with the story telling.
If you liked Dunkirk, seeing 1917 is a no-brainer. I don't think it ever surpasses that movie, but it makes a strong attempt all the same. It's a must see for war film enthusiasts, but deserves a more modest recommendation for everyone else.
1917 is not a fun movie. There are maybe a total of 3 light-hearted or heartwarming scenes across the runtime. The plot does not result in the war being ended early or the heroes "saving the day". Almost every fucked-up aspect of World War I short of mustard gas is displayed in grisly detail.
And thank god for that.
The one-shot cinematography is breathtaking, beautiful, and intelligent, always focusing on what needs to be focused on while never sacrificing artistry when possible. The characters, for their limited dialogue, all feel very real and grounded, trying to make the best of a shitty situation and only sometimes succeeding.
But you don't go into this movie to have fun, and you shouldn't. It's less of a story and more of a reminder, and a timely one at that: regardless of what politicians and leaders and online glory hounds will tell you, War Is Hell. No one wins in the end, nothing is truly "saved" or "protected". It's a pointless, joyless lose-lose scenario to be avoided at all costs. And that's what we need to know, constantly. Hats off to the cast and crew.
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