1 Hr., 59 Mins.
1917 January 23, 2020
ar movie 1917 (2019), the latest project from the English director Sam Mendes, is a bit gimmicky. But its gimmick is so well-executed that it doesn’t matter if it’s sort of stuntish — a ploy to make an exceptional movie seem all-out great.
The trick of 1917 is that it looks as if it’s all been shot in a single
take. (Two, if you count a moment when a protagonist passes out — thus prompting the screen to go black — as a break.) Lurking underneath the astonishing feat is that looks can be deceptive. The movie actually encompasses a series of very-long takes assiduously edited to trick the eye of the beholder. Some movies have accomplished the real thing — look out for the impressive if otherwise concave heist thriller Victoria, from 2015, or the audacious, time-hopping Russian Ark, from 2002, which was less an artistic and more editing-room-fatigued dare from its director.
1917’s cinematographer, Roger Deakins, was at first skeptical of Mendes’ idea, as one naturally might be. Then he relented. “[One-shot] is not right for every story,” he recently told Variety. “But it’s a great way to tell this particular story.” Watching the movie, which Mendes has not inaccurately described as a ticking-clock thriller, we're inclined to agree.
The WWI-set film takes us to the front lines and follows two young British privates. One is played the buttoned-up George MacKay, the other by the stocky and chatty Dean-Charles Chapman. At the beginning of the movie, they're tasked by their general (Colin Firth) to journey across no man’s land to deliver a life-or-death message to Colonel McKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch). They are to go on foot (field telephone lines have been cut); they have until the next morning. With such a simple conceit the film almost has to be all emotion and sensation — a movie in which we feel like the third private.
If to be conventionally edited, 1917 would still probably have potency;
Mendes’ filmmaking really grabs us by the lapels, and Chapman and especially MacKay give emotive, daringly physical performances. And without any visible cutaways to fuel a tacit and therefore detrimental-to-realism idea that this is all just a movie, this becomes the kind of immersive entertainment that also suffocates. The camerawork and editing are reflective of the notion that these privates will get no second chances at this mission, so why should the cast and crew dramatizing their journey?
The artistic decision also imbues in the film an in-the-moment urgency I don't think it would otherwise have. I’ve never had much of an affinity for war movies, given their long-standing (though of course not exclusive)
portrayals of overbearing patriotism and romanticized imperialism. Movies like 1917, which are refreshingly cruel in their depictions of warrish ruthlessness, and the (in this case) cold and dirty and bloody conditions on which it’s built, are more my speed. I like how the movie’s ending doesn’t try to present us with a cut-and-dried reason to feel fuzzy; more so we’re overcome with a reminder that this is all futile. One victory has been seen here, but at what cost, and really of how much importance in the grand scheme of all the brutalities and tragedies begotten?
Among the favored contrarian arguments (the film has been almost universally acclaimed) is that 1917 is technically impressive but, without its technical impressiveness, loses a great deal of its oomph. I’m inclined to agree that the film’s utmost achievement is its visual triumph but not so much the idea that it isn’t that much more than its accomplishment. Mendes helms with too much feeling — you notice it when he homes in on faces during times of particular duress and in his muted and surprisingly scarce depictions of warfare. And his performers act so nervily that their work has an invigorating effect — they don’t feel like heroes and you feel their inexorable inner struggle between logic and gutty intuition. 1917's presentation impresses, but it doesn't overshadow. A-