‘1917’ (2019) | Movie Review

I fully understand the allure of the one-take film. Just as someone fascinated by the logistics of filmmaking, the choreography and technical skill to pull it off must be off the charts impressive. However, if you decide to make a one-take film (or a film made to look as if it is one-take), you run a high risk of concentrating entirely on the “how” of pulling it off rather than the “why.” Are you enhancing the story or just doing it to see if you can? The 2015 German film Victoria utilized its one-take, realtime structure to heighten the tension its story beautifully, and due to the low-fi aesthetic of the film, the immediacy was all the more apparent. I am sure Sam Mendes thought the same way about tension when it came to his latest film 1917. The idea of following two young men in the midst of World War I, in more-or-less realtime, would enhance the danger and terror of one of the ugliest wars in history. Unfortunately, due to the carefulness and smoothness of the camera movements and choreography, more often than not 1917 feels like a live-action version of watching a “Let’s Play” video of someone’s Call of Duty campaign on YouTube.

We follow two not very interesting soldiers, played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, on a mission quest to get from one place to another, picking up items and encountering various obstacles along the way, and most of the time is spent walking. In a video game, the blankness of the leads would hardly cause a stir, as you are the one controlling them and inserting yourself into the narrative and circumstances of the game. 1917 forgets it’s a third-person narrative and not a first-person one, assuming we will invest in these two men just because they are the ones we follow and giving them the thinnest of clichéd backstories to tell one another so they aren’t walking in silence. Putting the blame on MacKay and Chapman for this would be wrong, though they admittedly are not the most interesting of actors, but Mendes wants the wizardry of Roger Deakins to be the star of the show.

One could very easily make the case that Deakins is our greatest living cinematographer. From Barton Fink to Mendes’ own Skyfall, so many cinematographers envy his ability to simultaneously create absurdly stunning images and capture actors like no one else. Giving him the keys to go hog wild on a one-take film endeavor seems like a no-brainer, and he undoubtedly makes some beautiful moments. A fire lit nighttime chase scene, in particular, astounded me. But if I am watching a chase scene where bullets are hitting the wall a few inches away from our lead’s head and am thinking about light sources for the scene instead of worrying if he will make it out of the situation, something has gone horribly wrong.

Along their quest, Mendes does treat us to a slew of very famous British character actors like Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch, but these talented thesps just play devices and not people, whether it’s giving an objective or transportation. I wish I didn’t have to go back to the video game comparisons, but they feel like NPCs (which I mean in the actual way that term is supposed to be used). There’s no life to any of it.

World War I is not often depicted on film. The conflicts were murkier, and the battles truly horrific. As a WWI film, 1917 gives very little in terms of context of what that war was like. We get the iconography of the trenches, which was a major element of the warfare strategy, but because so much of the movie is this mission where most of what they go through being abandoned, the scale of the war never feels right. Showing a small piece of something as a microcosm of a greater whole can be an effective tool, but this reads more as hermetically sealed off than anything. Their mission involves stopping an attack by the British on the Germans because they have learned they would be walking into an ambush, but the urgency of it all never takes ahold because you don’t know what that means in the grand scheme of the war. This is why they even throw in one of the soldiers scheduled to go on that attack being Dean-Charles Chapman’s character’s brother, for some added and unearned stakes.

As a film designed to look like one-take (when it is actually not one), they certainly succeeded in their experiment. Most of the hidden cuts are truly invisible, and many of the sequences had me trying to figure out where and how the camera was moving in relationship with the performers. But if I am watching a narrative film as a technical demonstration rather than someone telling me a story, they have not done their jobs well. Much of the film lacks tension. The characters lack personality. Though the images contain beauty, they lack storytelling intention. Previously, Sam Mendes married personality, tension, and beauty just about as well as you could with Skyfall. With 1917, nothing balances out in a satisfying way. I would like to look at all the behind the scenes footage to see how it was done, but I would never want to watching the actual film again.

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