Man sitting at a table

The wrongly convicted Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx, left) is offered legal help by attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) in Just Mercy. (Courtesy of TIFF)

World War I tale uses gimmick to jaw-dropping effect 

When a director tries a novelty such as pretending to tell a story in one uninterrupted take, we’re likely to approach it with a little cynicism. After all, isn’t this just an attention-getting gimmick?

Admittedly, that was my suspicion when I began watching Sam Mendes’s World War I thriller, 1917. And I remained skeptical as British Corporals Blake and Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) set out on a seemingly impossible mission.

Eventually, though, Mendes won me over with help from co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns and cinematographer Roger Deakins. This is a gimmick, yes, but a devilishly impressive one. More importantly, it’s used in the service of an exciting adventure and a sensitively told war story.

Inspired by actual events, the film begins as Blake and Schofield are ordered to attempt a dangerous hike through supposedly deserted enemy territory. They’re told that another British division – one in which Blake’s brother serves – is planning to attack the retreating Germans. But what the division commander doesn’t know is that his 1,600 troops will be charging into a well-orchestrated German trap. Blake and Schofield’s assignment is to prevent the impending massacre.

The corporals’ journey begins cautiously and somewhat chattily. Walking through endless trenches and past the corpses of fallen soldiers and horses, they argue over their mission and even about the value of the medals they’re likely to earn. Then they encounter an elaborate, rat-infested German tunnel and, with it, the first of many complications. Eventually, even nature itself becomes the mission’s enemy.

Through it all, it’s hard not to be impressed by the way Mendes and Deakins tell the tale (with major help from composer Thomas Newman). At first, we’re blown away by their detailed and prolonged takes, but even more startling is the artistry with which they depict such images as a raging river or flames blazing against a night sky.

Inevitably, there is violence in this war story, but it’s depicted in a muted, understated way. The emphasis is on the humanity and heroism of two men determined to save their comrades-in-arms.

Impressive, indeed.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5).

Portrayals add power to tale of Southern injustice

When they give out the writing awards at the Oscars, presenters often talk about how much actors rely on screenwriters to give them words worth saying. What’s not often acknowledged is how much screenwriters rely on actors.

Sometimes, a strong cast can make a merely adequate script seem almost inspired. That’s the case with Just Mercy, the true story of a lawyer’s efforts to free an innocent black man from Death Row.

Destin Daniel Cretton directed and co-wrote the film, which is based on a book by attorney Bryan Stevenson. It’s about the Harvard-educated Stevenson’s crusade to give Alabama inmates the expert legal help they never got while on trial.  

Michael B. Jordan is competent as the idealistic Stevenson, as is Brie Larson as Eva Ansley, a local woman who volunteers her time to support his fledgling law office. But it’s Jamie Foxx who brings the story to life as Walter McMillan (aka “Jonnie D”), who has lost both faith and hope after being wrongly convicted of murdering a young white woman.

More power is added by Rob Morgan as a remorseful veteran sentenced for inadvertently killing someone while under the influence of PTSD. And perhaps the most intriguing portrayal of all is supplied by Tim Blake Nelson as a white convict who was manipulated into giving false testimony against McMillan.

Cretton actually serves the story better as a director rather than a writer. While the script offers few variations on the all-too-common tale of a black man railroaded by Southern justice, Cretton the director sometimes finds the emotions that the words struggle to convey. One of the most powerful scenes is an execution accompanied only by the sound of inmates screaming and scraping metal cups against their cell doors.

That’s appropriate because the real-life Stevenson advocates not only for justice but for the elimination of capital punishment. Given the number of times innocent people like McMillan have been sent to Death Row, it’s easy to see why.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

1917(rated R) and Just Mercy (PG-13) open Jan. 10 at theaters nationwide.


More reviews by Richard Ades can be found at

Corporals Schofield (George MacKay, left) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) check out an abandoned farmhouse in 1917. (Universal Pictures)

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