‘1917’ reviews: Sam Mendes’s one-shot war movie is a ‘jaw-dropping’ achievement

Director Sam Mendes‘s Christmas Day-release “1917” isn’t the first film to present the horrors of World War I, but it does take a unique perspective. Its story of two soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) on a mission to deliver a life-saving message is shot to look like one continuous take, immersing us in the action without letting us catch our breaths. Does that approach pay off? Yes, if the reviews are any indication.

As of this writing the film has a MetaCritic score of 82 based on 32 reviews counted thus far: 30 positive, 2 mixed, and none outright negative. Six of those positive reviews are rated a perfect 100, which indicates especially passionate support. Over on Rotten Tomatoes the film is rated 92% fresh based on 113 reviews, only 9 of which are characterized as negative. The RT critics’ consensus sums up the reviews as follows: “Hard-hitting, immersive, and an impressive technical achievement, ‘1917’ captures the trench warfare of World War I with raw, startling immediacy.”

The two review aggregators are different in that MC scores reviews on a sliding scale from 0-100, while RT is strictly binary, only telling you if reviews are positive or negative. So we can see from its RT score that the overwhelming majority of critics like the film to some degree, while MC shows us that a significant number of them outright love it.

The film’s race-against-time mission is being compared to “Saving Private Ryan” and is “very nearly as affecting.” It’s a “towering” achievement, “rendered with magnificent suspense and jaw-dropping visuals” thanks to Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins. The film doesn’t have “a particularly new tale to tell,” but it’s told in “a remarkable new way,” though some question whether the film’s visuals “tame” the horrors of war into “aesthetic submission.”

Also garnering praise for their craft achievements are production designer Dennis Gassner for “his many yards of real trenches,” costume designer Jacqueline Durran for her “work-worn uniforms” and composer Thomas Newman for “his boldest and best work yet.” But for all its technical accomplishments, it’s also distinguished by its two lead actors. “The film belongs” to Chapman and MacKay, and the latter especially is “destined” to become a star with his performance, which is “hope and fear personified.”

Before it opened the film already earned Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Picture, and the American Film Institute listed it as one of the year’s 10 best films. Does that mean it’s destined to be an Oscar contender? Check out some of the reviews below, and join the discussion on this and more with your fellow movie fans here in our forums.

Kim Hughes (Original Cin): “A spiritual cousin to Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and very nearly as affecting, director Sam Mendes’ towering drama ‘1917’ pays homage to soldiers of the Great War while dropping viewers straight into the trenches that summarily characterize that wretched conflict. It’s a simple story, wholly revealed in the trailer, but rendered with magnificent suspense and jaw-dropping visuals by veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins.”

Leah Greenblatt (Entertainment Weekly): “Sam Mendes doesn’t have a particularly new tale to tell in ‘1917’ … but he has found a remarkable new way to tell it … The film belongs to Chapman and more than anyone, MacKay, a 27-year-old Londoner with the long bones and baleful eyes of a porcelain saint or a lost Culkin brother. His Lance Corporal Schofield isn’t just a surrogate Everyman; he’s hope and fear personified.”

Kate Erbland (IndieWire): “Mendes has been assisted by the best in the business, from production designer Dennis Gassner and his many yards of real trenches and costume designer Jacqueline Durran’s functional and work-worn uniforms to composer Thomas Newman, turning in his boldest and best work yet, a never sentimental and wholly original entry into the pantheon of war movie scores … But if the film is destined to make any single player a star, it’s MacKay.”

Justin Chang (Los Angeles Times): “A skillfully orchestrated trap seems as fitting a way as any to think of ‘1917,’ in which the rawness and brutality of the Great War have been largely tamed into aesthetic submission … There are times when the nonstop visual momentum lends ‘1917’ the feel of a virtual-reality installation, and others when the simulation of raw immediacy slips to reveal the calculated construct underneath.”

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