Sam Mendes’ ‘1917’ Is a Towering Visual Achievement 

There are more than a few reasons why Roger Deakins is one of the only working cinematographers that comes close to resembling a household name. Arguably the Coen Brothers’ most essential collaborator, Deakins’ often Carvaggio-influenced lighting methods and evocative use of wide angle lenses have painted some of the most memorable images in all of cinematic history. Not a single director of photographer on the planet can come close to touching the expressive power of his colorful textures and unparalleled use of silhouettes. “1917” finds acclaimed director Sam Mendes reteaming with Deakins for their latest achievement, a single take World War I trench warfare experience, sending the audience on a harrowing and visceral suicide mission alongside two soldiers, Lance Corporal’s Blake and Scofield (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay).

“1917” is clearly a response to the heaps of acclaim lauded at Christopher Nolan’s film grammar dog fight, “Dunkirk,” which boldly relied almost solely on score, sound design and editing to convey the emotional consequences of its narrative. Only a singular filmmaker like Nolan could have possibly pulled it off. Similarly, Mendes, and only a visual artist like Roger Deakins, could take a basic storytelling concept like “1917” and construct such an unprecedented technical accomplishment, wowing the audience through the masterfully executed one-take technique.

On April 6, 1917, our pair of Lance Corporal’s are called into a bunker for a special assignment. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) informs Blake that the German’s have been planning a trap for the Allied Forces and that his brother’s brigade will likely be killed in a bloody massacre if the attack goes through. Racing against the close Blake and Scofield must cross no man’s land and trek across miles of country, delivering orders to the commanding officer to call off the assault before ordering his troops to charge into the face of certain death.

After the opening exposition portion the film is off and running. Our two leads traverse abandoned battlefields, crawling under barbed wire fences, maneuvering in and out of trenches, soon making their way across Europe’s vast countryside. The journey is tensely arresting for the first thirty minutes or so, and then the ongoing plot wrenches start to grow increasingly manipulative, throwing in various roadblocks and hindrances to thwart our protagonists to create narrative urgency.

“1917” is uneven as a narrative but an undeniably powerful subjective filmmaking experience, with visual design simultaneously as the strongest component and most limiting aspect of the movie’s conceit. Despite the fear and awe instilled by the imagery on display, as a war movie the plotting is mapped out and entirely constructed around the power of Deakins photography. Mendes’ project was a tremendous undertaking, but it really only has one cinematic idea on its mind, which is implemented impeccably from a formal perspective.

Mendes almost always stages his scenes around the same compositional camera setups, relying on the best cinematographers to make his films as dynamic as possible through over-the-shoulder shots, using the sides of the frame to accentuate a striking use of depth. And, while the filmmaking craft is incredibly impressive in “1917,” the director’s second war film after “Jarhead” (also shot by Deakins), blocking and delicate lighting can only sustain interest for so long. In the end, “1917” may not be perfect, but it is most definitely worth seeing in theaters for its towering visual experience.

1917” opens Dec. 25 in select theaters, Jan. 10 nationwide.