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First run Theater cinema

While there are literally thousands of movies that explore WWII from every conceivable perspective, there are only a handful of films covering the First World War. So, any picture about WWI is an exciting event. Unfortunately, the latest addition to this small cannon, Sam Mendes’s 1917, isn’t really about WWI. Set during “The War To End All Wars,” 1917 is much more about the technical achievement of its filmmakers than the human story of its characters. Designed, staged, photographed, and edited in such a way as to look like the entire film was made in a single unbroken shot, 1917 centers on two young British soldiers on a dangerous mission in Northern France. They are tasked with leaving their trench, crossing into no-man’s-land, and embarking on a beat-the-clock journey to deliver a warning to the commander of a distant regiment that he is about to send his 1,600 men into a German trap.

Photographed by the peerless cinematographer Roger Deakins (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, SkyfallBlade Runner 2049, and dozens of other visually arresting movies) 1917 follows its subjects along the trenches, across open fields, through burned-out cities, crammed in the back of trucks, all the way to the top of the Hindenburg Line where an army of British troops are about to advance into German guns. It’s all kind of impressive but, considering how many great to mediocre movies have already achieved this “all in one shot” aesthetic, seeing it done on this grand scale feels much less spectacular then it did when it was a novel thing to do. And 1917 doesn’t use the gimmick to tell its story; it uses the story to showcase its gimmick.

Based in part on an account told to Mendes by his paternal grandfather Alfred, a soldier in The Great War to whom the film is dedicated, the script spends little time developing its characters. The two leads, played by George MacKay (Sunshine on Leith, Pride, Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Breathe, Blinded by the LightThe King) are meant to be everymen—brave, selfless, duty-bound Lance Corporals in the British army. They cross paths with a few men played by big stars in sometimes distracting cameos—Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Ander Scott, and Benedict Cumberbatch—but this is a movie about the heroics of all British soldiers, not one or two extraordinary men.

The single-shot technique is meant to be immersive; giving the viewer a “you are there” sensation, but it actually has the opposite effect, pulling us out of the drama and constantly focusing our minds on the “how did they do that?” of the filmmaking. Worse, for such a big-budget prestige picture, the seams are pretty visible. Even without knowing any behind-the-scenes information, we can sense how this movie is made up of many long shots digitally stitched together to appear as one to a far greater degree than in smaller-scale pictures that do the same thing. It doesn’t take a film editor’s eye to see where many shots end and others begin. There is also so much digital manipulation of the images that much of the movie looks artificial, nullifying the verisimilitude the picture is trying to conjure. 

Regardless of its effectiveness, the single shot approach feels wrong for a film that is essentially a series of set-pieces. Each of the major sequences is beautifully staged, but the connective tissue of following the protagonists from point A to B to C to D is dull. We should feel the heightened danger of traversing enemy territory where we could be shot at any minute, but we don’t. We’re just looking at character’s backs much of the time as they move through different spaces. And this is not the kind of spellbinding movement through spaces that Stanley Kubrick achieved in his iconic WWI picture Paths of Glory (1957), where characters wind their way through trenches that feel like they might go on forever. Nor does it achieve the complex yet efficient perfection of the Dunkirk sequence in Joe Wright’s romantic WWII drama Atonement (2007), where all of the turmoil, panic, and confusion inherent in one extraordinary chapter of that war is boiled down to the experience of one soldier in a single, unbroken five-minute shot.

As Mendes and Deakins’s cameras follow their protagonists in 1917, we often feel like we’re watching someone play a first-person shooter video game—hardly the immersive sensation we get from battlefield war movies like Saving Private Ryan (1998), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), or Hacksaw Ridge (2016).

The all-in-a-oner approach has become increasingly popular with filmmakers of all budget and experience levels now that digital effects and lightweight digital cameras have made it so much easier to achieve. Therefor it’s now all the more true that in order for one of these films to succeed artistically, it must do much more than accomplishing the baseline task of appearing to be all one shot. A film must either actually be done in a single unbroken take without digital trickery—such as the experimental film Timecode (2000), the Russian historical drama Russian Ark (2002), or the German crime thriller Victoria (2015), all of which are impressive but not great movies—or they must actually achieve something beyond their mere cinematic stunt—like Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful and funny play adaption Rope (1948), Chris Kentis and Laura Lau’s psychological horror-thriller Silent House (2011), or Alejandro Iñárritu’s dark comedy Birdman (2014).

The growing new fixation on “oners” is an interesting inverse of the obsession with, and reliance on, rapid often-random cutting that has been part of the language of cinema since the 1980s and the invention of music videos. While I do welcome the trend of filmmakers, especially up-and-coming young directors, putting more attention and emphasis on the composition and choreography of their shots, this do-it-in-one approach is still extremely hard to pull off. For a filmmaker the stature of Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Skyfall) to use the technique so grandly but without fully succeeding to tell an effective and moving story drives that point home.

Twitter Capsule:
More exercise than art, Mendes's single-shot, first-person-trooper, trench warfare film is set during WWI but isn't really about WWI; it's much more about the technical achievement of its filmmakers than the human story of its characters.

Directed by Sam Mendes
Produced by Sam Mendes, Brian Oliver, Callum McDougall, Pippa Harris, and Jayne-Ann Tenggren

Written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns

With: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch

Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Editing: Lee Smith
Music: Thomas Newman

Runtime: 119 min
Release Date: 10 January 2020
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1