1917 ★★★★½

83

Grunt work. Sam Mendes and team have conjured up a masterclass in tactility. The trenches, mud, corpses, dilapidated farms and villages. It's all given an earthy texture, eventually crumbling into surreal spaces and haunted chaos. As a 'men on a mission' movie, it has no real consideration for the historical context, and great care is taken in the minute details. Each step and glance around the corner, each sudden turn of events, the progression of location and character - it's harrowing and often thrilling, fueled by the one-take wonder that is almost entirely seamless. War as adventure, quick-time events, stealth, and bravery. Don't even mean this as a diss - it's like a sturdy CoD campaign from 2005. I found myself referencing and recalling visual interactive media rather than other war films. This is very much a 'video game' experience but with no opportunity to re-spawn. Its visceral movements, often progressing from moments of character to exposition dumps to action/suspense set-piece, operate as the audience being an active onlooker with no choice in the outcome.

Roger Deakins is going to sweep up another Oscar for this work, and it's fucking deserved. A section in an abstracted, almost alien village of rubble, mysterious bodies, shadow and flare, features some of the most indelible imagery he's ever dreamed onto the screen. His shadows are so rich, as are his real-time transitions from night to day, encapsulating the natural world's indifference to the slaughter at hand. Not to mention the intimate and swift blocking of the two leads, and the use of the 'one-take' look. Never once do you feel that the film could've been strengthened with traditional editing. The script isn't horrible, but the film benefits largely from the spectacle of its own production.

How it functions as a war picture is a different story all together. As an evocation of space and feeling, it excels, but it isn't necessarily going out of its way to discuss the war as anything other than meaningless. It's very one-note. There is nobility and bravery depicted, and as pointless as it is to the piles of corpses entombed in the mud, 1917 reaches its conclusion by encompassing how these stories do not make up for what was lost. What we as spectators witness disappear before our very eyes. How a war is almost incomprehensible to two boys wandering the landscape, the lives of thousands contained in a sanctioned letter, splattered with blood.

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