What if Saving Private Ryan, but in one take? OK, there’s more to Sam Mendes’ 1917 than that. It’s good! But also, it’s kinda that. Read on for my 1917 movie review.

Took in 1917 earlier tonight, and wanted to jot down a few quick thoughts. It’s well deserving of all the praise it’s getting, both as an emotional moviegoing experience and as a technical achievement. 

So, yes, it’s a “one-r” — the film appears as a single long shot. It’s obviously not; as you would imagine, it would be impossible to film this story — of two soldiers traversing enemy territory in France in World War I to deliver an urgent message — in a single take. I suppose you could call it cheating, but, if the purpose of the single take is to draw the viewer into the story, to make you feel closer to the characters and their experiences, it’s definitely effective. And I assume that is Sam Mendes’ and Roger Deakins’ intent, rather than to say “hey look at me, I did all this crazy stuff in one take!”

At no point does it feel like the film is showing off, which is always the danger with filmmaking gimmicks like this. There were a couple moments in Gravity that made me feel that way; I suppose the “otherworldliness” of that film, compared to the more grounded reality of 1917, might have made that inevitable.

Acting-wise, George MacKay delivers a fantastic performance as Lance Corporal Schofield. His face really conveys all the emotion you’d expect from his journey, from frustration and bravado to horror and genuine fear. I saw MacKay in True History of the Kelly Gang at TIFF, and while he was great at playing Kelly’s manic energy, that role didn’t really demand much else. He shows a much broader range here. 

Dean-Charles Chapman is equally excellent as Lance Corporal Blake, who sets off on the mission with an eagerness that partner Schofield doesn’t share, as he has a personal stake in it. Chapman’s babyface looks convey that enthusiasm well.

You’ve also got Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden and a near-unrecognizable Colin Firth in small roles, so 1917 is not lacking in star power.

In terms of story, it definitely reminds of Saving Private Ryan — a mission to find one soldier somewhere in France behind enemy lines, sure, but several story beats — French countrymen hiding out, a captured German, a sniper in a tower, even a momentary debate about the duty of soldiers and the glory of war — mirror Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic. And of course, both deliver visceral images of the horrifying deaths and trauma of war. 

But regardless of the similarities, it’s a good story. You’re invested in these characters and their  mission, the same way you are in Saving Private Ryan. The climax, with MacKay racing across a battlefield to deliver the message as troops “go over the top” and artillery explodes all around, is incredibly tense, edge-of-your-seat stuff. 

That sequence alone makes 1917 worth seeing, especially in a theatre, on the biggest screen possible. Recommended.