The buzz surrounding 1917, the new film by Sam Mendes in tribute to his grandfather, is its technical achievement of appearing as if it is two extremely long takes. Aside from one pointedly hard cut, the film hides its edits in its pans across surfaces which cover the frame or in tunnels of darkness.
It is a technique reminiscent of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman or Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (Hitchcock would have attempted a completely one-take film if he were not limited by the technical capabilities of the time, which only allowed about seven minutes of footage before the film had to be changed out). The long tracking shots through trenches might also bring to mind Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, whose long takes make the film feel surprisingly modern.
If you are a long take purist, however, you may turn to a film like Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, which is a film composed of truly a single long take lasting almost 100 minutes. Or there is last year’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, whose second half is an hour-long single take shot in 3D.
These films, 1917 included, are undoubtedly impressive from a technical perspective. And I am a personal sucker for a good long take. It would be hypocritical of me to appreciate the aforementioned films for their long takes and not give 1917 the same credit. Cinematographer Roger Deakins and Mendes craft a few truly impeccable shots in the film. The amount of energy spent in pre-visualization when it comes to camera placement, camera movement, and the blocking and staging of the actors must have been excessive, and the resulting product is technically well-crafted.
The film follows two lance corporals in the British army, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are tasked with traveling through no man’s land into Ecoust-Saint-Mein in order to call off an attack. The attack would find the British army falling into a German trap, which would result in heavy casualties.
It is this simple conceit—move from point A to point B at any cost—where 1917 finds its major problems. There is a sameness to the film that hampers its pacing and creates a drab atmosphere which is uninviting, even when the shots are consistently great. Deakins’ camera is graceful and slick, weaving around soldiers or otherwise acting as one of them, carefully documenting the actions of the scene. But the actions are often tedious. The shocking realizations of danger become rote over time, and the gaps between danger are far more humdrum than one would expect from a plot which finds its characters at the center of a vicious war.
A war film does not need strong characters to be effective, per se. Dunkirk is a good, recent example of a film more focused on a particular moment of war than it is on depth of character. But even Christopher Nolan’s film illustrates more individuality in its characters than Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns do in 1917. Schofield and Blake are likeable enough, because the script swears by their compassion and their brotherly bond. But beyond this they are fairly vacuous personalities. The nobility of Schofield is crucial to the narrative, perhaps, but it is not enough to hang an entire film on when this film pauses so frequently for quiet character moments which fail to illustrate character.
The first half of the film is characterized by Blake and Schofield walking and talking. They chat idly, without much of interest to say. When they find themselves moving closer to danger, the energy of the film picks up, but this is after multiple scenes which add nothing of note to the narrative. One theme of the film is brotherhood, as is often the case with fictional representations of war, and maybe these scenes are meant to illustrate this bond. But they are comprised mostly of casual anecdotes which do not resonate and have little urgency. The film wants to tell the story of two young soldiers on an apparent suicide mission, but these scenes render the experience somewhat flat.
This is not to diminish the performances of the two leads. MacKay, in particular, gives a wonderfully stony yet vulnerable performance. As for the side characters, mostly comprised of celebrity cameos, there is not much to say. The notable standout is Andrew Scott, whose glib and frank lieutenant character is the only bit of fun the film provides.
The reality of the 1917 situation is that, without the impressive shots composed by Deakins and the adequately bombastic score from Thomas Newman, the film would be an utterly standard war picture. The narrative has so little meat on its bones, and the characters are given so little depth, that there is little else besides these technical achievements to hold your attention.
It is one thing to marvel at the shot immediately following the film’s sole hard cut, in which Deakins’ camera travels outside the second story window of a bombed out house and down onto the ground, where the night is illuminated by the glow from a far-off fire. The score’s crescendo is chill-inducing as a character travels blindly and tiredly into the night. But it is another thing to view this scene narratively, where the only point of concern is the character’s wounds and his resiliency in spite of them. It is not a moment entirely devoid of emotion, but the emotional payoff is not particularly satisfying, either.
1917 has some value on the big screen. It is a worthy theatrical experience for those inclined to enjoying war films. Beyond that, it is not extraordinarily noteworthy.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)