A tech­ni­cal feat, ‘1917’ is great sto­ry­telling, too

Antelope Valley Press - - Showcase - BY JOCELYN NOVECK AP Na­tional Writer

It’s been a good time for World War I buffs — es­pe­cially if they’re also movie buffs. A year ago di­rec­tor Peter Jack­son ap­plied state-of-the-art tech­nol­ogy to cen­tury-old war footage to bring the Great War alive with sud­den, stun­ning im­me­di­acy in his doc­u­men­tary “They Shall Not Grow Old.”

And now, in the fea­ture film “1917,” an­other of our most tal­ented di­rec­tors, Sam Men­des, has sim­i­larly taken top tech­nol­ogy — and the best cine­matog­ra­phy, cour­tesy of Roger

Deakins — to give us a dif­fer­ent, equally com­pelling look at that cruel war, through the eyes of two or­di­nary sol­diers asked to per­form an ex­traor­di­nary task.

The spe­cial sauce here, which you may have heard about: “1917” ap­pears as if it were shot in one seam­less take — or two, if you in­clude one spot where it seems clear a break prob­a­bly oc­curred. Ac­tu­ally, there are dozens of cuts, but they’re in­ge­niously hid­den by ed­i­tor Lee Smith, and the long­est con­tin­u­ous shot is only about eight min­utes.

Yes, it’s a daz­zling tech­ni­cal feat. One could also con­sider it a gim­mick, or at least a method that threat­ens to dis­tract the viewer’s at­ten­tion. But that ig­nores the fact that this very film mak­ing style is also hugely ef­fec­tive at de­liv­er­ing this par­tic­u­lar story, in the most vis­ceral way pos­si­ble.

It’s a tale — in­spired by sto­ries Men­des heard from his own grand­fa­ther, who fought as a teenager — of two fright­ened young men, ut­terly un­pre­pared for what they’re asked to do. And re­ally, who WAS pre­pared? Th­ese were boys. If in Jack­son’s doc­u­men­tary the most sober­ing sight of all was those fright­ened faces, many be­long­ing to teens who’d lied about their youth in order to en­list, th­ese shell shocked faces come alive here in the form of lance cor­po­rals Schofield and Blake — George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chap­man, rel­a­tive new­com­ers cho­sen to en­force the idea that th­ese were un­re­mark­able, or­di­nary men.

The ac­tion be­gins in the af­ter­noon of April 6, 1917, in North­ern France. Scho

field and Blake are rest­ing un­der a tree when a com­mand­ing of­fi­cer or­ders Blake to “pick a man and bring your kit” — it’s not clear why. Blake en­lists Schofield, and the two men head to the trench. As they walk, the cam­era grad­u­ally pans wider and we see a field full of sol­diers, more and more of them, rest­ing, talk­ing, do­ing their laun­dry.

In the trench, Gen­eral Erin­more (Colin Firth, one of sev­eral Bri­tish stars, in­clud­ing Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch, Mark Strong and Richard Mad­den, who ap­pear in brief cameos) de­scribes their mis­sion. It’s im­me­di­ately clear why Blake was cho­sen. His older brother is part of a bat­tal­ion plan­ning to at­tack the Ger­mans, be­lieved to be re­treat­ing, the next morn­ing. But the men — 1,600 of them — are head­ing into a trap, and will suf­fer cat­a­strophic losses un­less they can be stopped. The en­emy has cut off all com­mu­ni­ca­tions. “They have no idea what they’re in for,” says Erin­more, tersely.

The mis­sion: to ven­ture out into No Man’s Land and make the daunt­ing jour­ney on foot to warn the bat­tal­ion, wait­ing in the woods near the town of Ecoust. Their only sup­plies: maps, torches, grenades, a lit­tle food, and their kits — oh, and a flare pis­tol given to them by Lt. Les­lie, com­man­der of the Yorks (a won­der­fully wry An­drew Scott of “Fleabag,” pro­vid­ing a few sec­onds of what passes for lev­ity), who seems fairly sure the lads won’t make it back alive.

As they climb out of the trenches and head into per­ilous ter­ri­tory — aban­doned and des­o­late, piled with corpses of men and horses — they get to know each other bet­ter. Blake, the younger at 19, is chatty, hu­mor­ous, good with maps and al­ways at the ready with an amus­ing anec­dote. He’s also starry-eyed about bat­tle­field glory, and as­pires to a medal. Schofield, a few years older with a bit more ex­pe­ri­ence, is less talk­a­tive, more stoic, and also more cyn­i­cal. He won a medal but traded it for a bot­tle of French wine.

We travel with th­ese two young men as they tra­verse a hellish land­scape, some­times step­ping on bloated bod­ies or run­ning into a sun-bleached skele­ton or burned corpse en­cased in barbed wire, with the cam­era usu­ally fol­low­ing just be­hind as we share this real-time ad­ven­ture. We’re drawn into a re­cently aban­doned Ger­man trench, where the men marvel at how even the en­emy’s rats are big­ger and stronger. They survive ex­plo­sions, nearly get hit by a crash­ing plane sud­denly plum­met­ing into the screen, and suf­fer a hor­ri­ble set­back at one point on the jour­ney.

Both young ac­tors are hugely ap­peal­ing. MacKay in par­tic­u­lar de­liv­ers a break­out per­for­mance that some­how feels both con­tem­po­rary and time­less. You could call his Schofield a re­luc­tant hero, but that doesn’t seem to suf­fi­ciently cap­ture the essence of a young man who didn’t choose his fate — “Why did you choose ME?” he rails at Blake at one point — but slowly and surely rises to the oc­ca­sion with de­ter­mi­na­tion and as­sur­ance born of ut­ter ne­ces­sity. You may not soon for­get MacKay’s face.

You also won’t soon for­get a moment of sheer beauty that sud­denly ma­te­ri­al­izes amid the ter­ror: A ru­ined French town at night, flood­lit against the dark sky by a rag­ing fire in the dis­tance, while the score by Thomas New­man soars. There’s also a cli­mac­tic vis­ual se­quence that takes the breath away — to say any more would risk re­veal­ing too much plot.

By the end, chances are you also won’t re­mem­ber that you be­gan the film try­ing to out­wit the film­mak­ers and fig­ure out the tricks be­hind their tech­ni­cal magic. Some good, old-fash­ioned sto­ry­telling magic has taken over. Men­des has done justice to his grand­fa­ther’s tales.

“1917,” a Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios re­lease, has been rated R by the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica “for vi­o­lence, some dis­turb­ing im­ages, and lan­guage.” Run­ning time: 119 min­utes. Four stars out of four.

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