by SC Reviewer Shelby Larsen
War is hell. It’s brutally violent, fear-inducing, unpredictable, irrational, and, no matter what they say, is never the “war to end all wars”. It also produces moments of understanding, and unexpected kindness.
Director Sam Mendes takes the film audience there, in a way that displays all of the above, and more, yet avoids lingering on or exploiting the almost unimaginable horror that burst on humanity with the advent of mechanized warfare in 1917.
The plot line is spare: two young British soldiers, Blake and Schofield, (played by George McKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are sent off by General Erinmore (Colin Firth, a stalwart of British theater) across no-man’s land with a message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch, a younger but still stalwart of British theater) with a message that is the only hope of stopping the probable massacre of 16,000 troops by the Germans (or the Huns, as they are often referred to). There are bi-planes, and cannon, and dead horses, and lots and lots and lots of bodies, a ruined French church, and explosions. Comrades die, courage is doubted, courage is continued, the message must get through, etc.
In other words, all the trappings of a war movie. Plus, its historical, so there’s that opportunity for cinematic authenticity.
On paper, nothing you haven’t seen before. There are a few logical flaws. And yet, it is rightfully considered as one of the best movies of the year.
Why? Because it is a technical tour de force that draws the audience in, and keeps the suspense level high, without any obvious gimmicks or CGI manipulations.
Not that there weren’t any. It is not possible to shoot a two hour film in one long tracking shot. Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins manage to make that impossible task look real.
And I don’t say that lightly. From the opening view of the soldiers napping, through their movements in the trenches, to the audacious crossing of no-mans land, the obstacles, encounters, and bombings along the way, the film gives the audience the feeling of being right with them, almost in real time.
McKay and Chapman are perfect in their roles. Young, vulnerable, cynical, idealistic in different measures, there is nothing stereotypical about them.
But it’s the visual accomplishment that brings all of the elements together, and keeps the audience in suspense ( because, after all, you know the message is going to be delivered in the end) that is truly groundbreaking.
War is ferocious. War is futile. And yet, it goes on. While the commanders stay in their bunkers, the audience spends two days in the lives of extraordinary ordinal soldiers.
It sometimes seems the young men portrayed have made the impossible possible.
In cinema, so has Sam Mendes.