Roughly once a year (sometimes every few years), we embark on a quest to Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theater with high hopes of a truly rewarding filmgoing experience. Even more scarcely, we find a film that exceeds our anticipations and more. What director Sam Mendes and company deliver with this World War I epic is something far beyond even the most immeasurable of expectations. “1917” follows a pair of British soldiers tasked with carrying a message through the trenches of enemy territory to prevent an impending massacre.  This familiar war story blueprint is amplified by a technical method adopted only by a few of cinema’s most ambitious auteurs. The film implements a single-take, perpetual tracking shot, virtually unaltered from beginning to end.  It’s an inscrutably captured high-wire act that craft can be measured against some of the most skillfully executed efforts in film history.

Recent Best Picture winner “Birdman” was also shot in one continuous take. “1917” brings this practice to a whole new level. The single-shot technique and war movie blueprint are a match made in movie heaven. It becomes imperative to the film’s overall texture, as the spectacle imbues the audience to the perspective of a soldier. Its unblinking aspect pervades its viewers to the uncertainty of the landscape. We are constantly reminded of the fear of something or someone popping out of the woodwork at any given moment. The mode is permeated so imposingly that it restricts even a moment of breath. A wide lens is instituted to provide the viewer with a sense of space, which also allows the film to insert obscured details into the background. We are inherently focused on what’s happening right in front of us, while a trained eye will be able to anticipate oncoming danger for our main characters. 

The production design is assembled like an acrobatic obstacle course. Sequentially, every turn from A to Z has to be wholly exacted for the next sequence to materialize. Evidently, the script had to be rehearsed on location for six months before the shoot for time and space to be discerned. It’s like a stunt man’s ballet or elaborate stage play. It’s a daunting ordeal that on paper seems impossible to pull off adequately. Luckily for us, “1917” is carried out seamlessly and executed with the utmost beguilement. 

However, a truly exceptional feature film is not exclusively measured by a technical scale. “1917” exudes an emotional palate that penetrates the audience’s capacity to empathize. Our chaperones on this journey include relative newcomers George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman. These actors’ anonymity frames an idea to viewers that these men could be anyone. George Mackay gives an internal yet amply emotive performance that ensures the audience’s support. He is our reluctant hero that never sacrifices his moral integrity or retreats when threats seem imminent. His quiet, more revelatory character moments make it easy for us to get behind him. Through this character, we are prompted to an unspoken truth of the dynamic between soldiers. These men are not caricatures; they are individuals with endless nuances. No men on either side are righteous nor villainous; they are simply a flock of chickens running with their heads cut off, fearing immediate demise. 

“1917” marks a pioneering achievement in the ever-evolving landscape of cinema. It’s a film that presents all the prerequisites for immaculate filmmaking to a tune of complete harmony. As far as artistic and technical design, this is some of the most impressive work ever put to film. It’s one of the absolute best films of the past decade – one that reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place.

Grade: A+

By Sam Clark