April 6, 1917: two British soldiers stationed in the north of France are summoned by thethe high command to perform a vital mission: prevent the suicide advance of an allied battalion towards the German lines. The aerial survey confirms that the crocuses have carried out a strategic retreat to trap thousands of British soldiers and decimate them with heavy artillery shots. With the phone lines cut off, it will be up to the young corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schoefild (George MacKay) hand delivering orders that will prevent carnage. It might look like a Call of Duty macguffin, but it's the opening words of new film by Sam Mendes, the acclaimed director of American Beauty and the last two James Bonds. After a timid attempt in 2005, the discreet Jarhead, Mendes returns to try his hand at war cinema, moving from the Persian Gulf to the French trenches at the height of the First World War.
The result is 1917, or one of the most sensational cinematic experiences of recent years. Every aspect of this reconstruction is treated in detail, every scene has an impact on the viewer, and every frame has something to tell. The registisco style chosen by Mendes recalls Iñárritu's technique seen in Birdman or Revenant, that is, the simulation of a continuous sequence plan for the duration of the entire film. Mendes goes even further, so much so that the camera never detaches from the ground and never moves the fire from the protagonists, even in scenes where the field stretches. The perspective seems almost the POV of a mockumentary, but the dynamism and perfection of the shots give an incredible sense of identification to the film; as if we were all in those filthy and claustrophobic trenches, surrounded by misery and death.
Roger Deakins' photography (Oscar winner for Blade Runner 2049) is cold and bleak at the right point, but he also manages to find space for moments of warmth and humanity: brief intimate brackets among the unspeakable horrors of war.
The sound sector is another aspect where the film excels, whether it is rifles, biplanes, or artillery blanks, the sound of war is deafening and omnipresent, it gives no respite to the soldiers or to the spectator. All the officers who appear on the screen are played by superb British actors, great performances by Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch, just to name a few. Not least the protagonists, who manage to convey the sense of terror and pure insignificance of two soldiers thrown into the hell of the front. Some scenes maintain a level of tension that seems to look like a horror movie, others break it with jokes between soldiers who show themselves for what they are: simple frightened boys.
Unfortunately, despite the visual and sound riot, the film has a rather conspicuous problem: the script is rather weak and definitely superfluous. Which goes back to a bigger question that many have grasped: America has not yet understood the First World War. This does not diminish the incredible work done to reconstruct the environments, the costumes, and everything that revolves around 1917, but the need to insert a heroic mission for the protagonists almost leaves a bad taste in the mouth. This is an understandable impulse, both because the films need a plot and because really dealing with the senselessness of the trench warfare is not easy.
But one cannot help but think of the power of the images of "They shall not grow old", the restored documentary by Peter Jackson that shows scenes from the everyday life of British soldiers. No heroism, only human beings who prepare five o'clock tea waiting to be sent to die riddled with shots. Or even, absurdly, to the bitter irony of "Blackadder goes forth" English sit-com with Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie, virtually unknown outside the UK.
What is missing in 1917 is the bleak realization of how much all this made no sense, of how the entire conflict was a continuous cycle of youth mowed down by machine guns and swept away by artillery, by both sides.