I can summarize “1917” in nine words: “Saving Private Ryan” for World War I, only better.
The mood is more akin to “Dunkirk,” partly because the leads are British, but also because the cinematography and score are Oscar-worthy as well. Add the exciting new young actors Dean-Charles Chapman (“Game of Thrones,” “Blinded by the Light”) and George McKay (“Captain Fantastic,” “Ophelia” — see my previous review), and this is a one-of-a-kind war film, the best in years, more than earning the phrase "war epic".
A couple of green lance corporals, teasing and competitive and proving to the audience that boys are the same no matter what time or place the war, are given an impossible task: travel across enemy lines and into the action on foot to tell a fellow battalion their mission is a trap and hopefully save the lives of 1,600 men, including one of their brothers.
Another universal truth is that boys grow up fast in war, and we see it happen over the next two hours as they race against the clock overnight in what seems like one impossibly long shot through trench after trench and battle after battle with no cuts.
It's almost like you're there, whether you want to be or not.
The urgency in the score adds to the tension when needed, sometimes providing an almost literal light at the end of the tunnel, and remains quieted in scenes when necessary to respect the audience’s grieving process, instead of relentlessly moving onward like most action or war movies.
The boys themselves are a Lord of the Rings Sam and Frodo pair, one a purposeful but reluctant hero and one a stalwart and protective companion. Will our heroes complete their mission? Have the Germans retreated? Will they double back with force?
Of course there are snipers and downed planes, explosions, some gore and even damsels in distress — everything a good war movie needs, but writer/director Sam Mendes (“Skyfall,” “American Beauty,” “Revolutionary Road”) worried whether he could sell a movie with unknown leads, so he also threw in Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch and made sure they were in the previews (despite the fact that their roles combine to fill only a few minutes of the film overall).
This “Gone With the Wind” scale filmmaking endeavor just won Best Picture, Director and Cinematography from the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, and the Golden Globe for Best Drama and Best Director (where it was also nominated for Best Original Score), so maybe now people will go see it in the theater, where it is meant to be seen, as Mendes said in his acceptance speech, despite the fact that it only features "future" young Leonardo DiCaprios and Brad Pitts, not current.