‘1917’ throws away its continuous shot
Tom Naatz | Wednesday, January 22, 2020
From start to finish, it appears as though “1917,” Sam Mendes’ World War I race-against-the-clock story, was filmed in one continuous shot. The film follows the travails of two young British soldiers, Schofield and Blake, as they seek to deliver a message to a British unit — of which Blake’s brother is a member — about to get caught in a German trap. The film takes place across roughly 24 hours and miles upon miles of open French countryside, but it all looks to have been captured in just one take.
The film’s cinematography imbues its story with a fantastic sense of realism. It never feels like you’re observing the action — rather, it feels like you’re there with the soldiers as they navigate booby traps, snipers, a dog fight and, basically, the weight of the Imperial German Army while seeking to relay their message. This up-close-and-personal strategy allows you to develop an attachment to the main characters, virtually the only two people who appear consistently throughout the film.
When I saw the movie — without giving anything away — the woman sitting behind me, overcome with emotion, started to bawl as the credits rolled. It made sense. The cinematography, much of which captures the men at eye level, allows for a deep connection between the viewer and the characters in the film.
But beyond this cinematography, “1917” is a bit of an odd war movie. It lacks a grandly captured combat sequence. The casting is unconventional. Dean-Martin Chapman and George Mackay portray Blake and Schofield, respectively. While the two are moderately famous, they aren’t instantly recognizable faces except, perhaps, to those with a deep intimate knowledge of British TV and the London theater scene (and Game of Thrones, in Chapman’s case).
The movie features an impressive lineup of male British actors, namely Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard Madden, for example. Yet for whatever reason, their time on screen is kept deliberately short, as each only appears for a single scene before disappearing. It’s not loud. It’s not flashy. What, then, is it?
I, for one, left the theater wondering what the larger point was supposed to be. The plot — that Schofield and Blake must deliver a message in 24 hours — is simple to a fault. There are no moral quandaries. There is no cause for deep reflection. There are only orders.
Furthermore, for anyone who has seen “Saving Private Ryan,” the storyline will feel borrowed. Plus, there are a couple of glaring holes. For instance, the explanation proffered for why these two random soldiers in particular were picked for the mission is weak. One would hope that the “the telephone lines were cut, you’re pretty good with maps, your brother is in the doomed unit and your friend happened to be napping next to you” rationale, offered to Blake at the beginning of the movie, would not suffice in real life. Also, didn’t the British army have some sort of signaling corps, or courier unit?
Is the point to showcase the horrors of war? Maybe — but if so, then the film falls short. “1917” demonstrates that daily life in World War I was hard. The many rats and decomposing bodies make that obvious. But on the whole, life in the trenches looks grimy and unpleasant, not positively hellish. If you really want to experience the horror of First World War, “1917” isn’t the place to do it. Instead, watch Peter Jackson’s superb documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” or read Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
It should pick up an Oscar or two, especially for the incredible cinematography. All told, though, “1917” is unsatisfying. The movie drips with untapped potential. It’s good but not great. While “1917” is the type of movie you might enjoy, it will probably not prove to be the kind of classic war story we’ll point to for the rest of time. Mendes left a lot on the field.
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Dean-Martin Chapman, George Mackay
If you like: “Dunkirk,” “Saving Private Ryan”
Shamrocks: 3 out of 5