It’s this decision that propels 1917 to the upper echelons of the genre. War movies can fail when the audience is left detached from the action because, while we can all appreciate special effects and masterful dialogue, you need to feel as if you’re there, on the ground with characters, to be truly moved. Think of the opening credits of Saving Private Ryan, which have gone down in cinematic history as testimony to the true horrors of war as Allied forces descend on Omaha Beach in World War Two. Here, Mendes immerses us in the relentless pressure and fear on the front line; the camera never pans away as the two lads traverse trenches, barbed wire, rubble and booby traps, with death imminent at every corner.
Relative newcomers MacKay and Chapman do sterling work as the baby-faced soldiers with a seemingly impossible task. They’re ably surrounded by an army of established acting talent: as well as Firth and Cumberbatch, there’s Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Daniel Mays and Richard Madden, each bringing gravitas to short, but significant cameos.
Some have said 1917 feels more like a thriller, but this is not a criticism. Throughout the film’s two-hour running time, the audience knows how high the stakes are. There are action sequences, moment of suspense and unexpected scenes of violence – just don’t expect respite. Even in the quieter moments, there looms a sense of doom. You might be exhausted by the end of it, but you won’t have been unmoved. If, two decades on from his American Beauty win, Mendes were to collect a second Oscar for 1917, it would be well deserved.
1917 is out this Friday, 10th January.