You’re already aware that 1917 is good. Even if it hadn’t just received the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Drama and Best Director there was a lot of evidence to point you in that direction. For one, it comes from one of the best director/cinematographer duos to ever work together, Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins. For another, it’s written by Mendes and up-and-coming screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns. And finally, it’s a WWI movie and Hollywood loves making good World War movies.
Knowing all that then, this review is going to take a dive into how Mendes accomplishes the fantastic feat of a “single shot” film and why it was the right choice for this movie. Because 1917 is obviously good. It had nearly no chance of being bad and it turned out almost exactly as it should have.
Director: Sam Mendes
Release Date: January 10, 2019
1917 is based on a true story in the way legends are created through time, like a rumor turning into a fact, turning into myth. Sam Mendes’ grandfather told him a WWI story that stuck in his mind and grew into this film. It is true in the sense that it grew from a real world tale and, honestly, that probably makes it as accurate as any other “based on a true story” film.
The movie follows two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George McKay) in the year of 1917, who are tasked to cross enemy territory in order to deliver a message that a German retreat is actually a trap before nearly 1,600 British soldiers charge into it. Along the way, in mostly real time, they encounter a dog fight, Huns, and a host of other characters as they struggle towards saving the lives of thousands and Blake’s brother. Why only two men are sent for this important mission is a bit flimsy in terms of plotting but feels like the making of a legend told to ones grandson long ago. It is modern myth, so logic takes a back seat to story and themes, in this case for the better.
Mendes directs the film beautifully, weaving the camera through is long take as if the audience is a member of the two-man team. He doesn’t simply follow these soldiers but embodies them with his direction. When they’re disoriented the camera work becomes so. He will pan away momentarily to focus on a minute detail, helping define the two men and war itself with a simple moment instead of exposition. Small details will take place in the background that shift the tone of the scene and expand the film’s world without ever leaving the side of its protagonists. A quick shift to a doll in an abandoned house the pair are working through speaks more volumes about the characters themselves and the effects of war than the film’s opening dialog ever could.
There is a specific scene where Schofield is escaping from pursuing enemy forces, lit almost entirely by flares and done in a single shot, that is basically just Roger Deakins showing off. The lighting, camera work, shadows, pacing and tension are simply superb as flares intermittently illuminate from different angles and our hero ducks and weaves through the ruins of a town. It is striking and one of the reasons to make sure you see the film on the big screen.
The movie is almost unrelenting as well. Given the nature of a single-shot movie this makes sense but Mendes paces and plots the film expertly. The single-shot also isn’t useless here. It’s used to create a momentum that would be lost in a more normal direction and drives a narrative pace that is breakneck. Because you’re travelling in real time the story doesn’t miss a beat and the pull towards the film’s conclusion is harrowing thanks to it. It also helps that the movie does not pull punches with war, explicitly hammering home the randomness of death during it. The single-shot emphasizes this as well as major moment simply happen within the flow of the film, not edited into it. Death happens just like the moment before happened and the next moment after it will happen. There’s no break between them.
Except once. There is an obvious cheat in the film and it’s unfortunately a big bump. The film is obviously not actually one long shot. There are many cuts in the more than two hour film: going from location shooting to interior sets, moving from a battleground to a field, simply needing to set up an action piece. Most of these are seamless and only those looking will notice them. However, at one point our character blacks out. It’s a necessary plot device since the trip can’t take only 2 hours to complete but it is a hard stop in momentum, instantly pulling you out of the tension and drive of the film. That moment to moment feeling is gone. The movie gains it all back quickly and I’m not sure what the actual solution is but the resulting gap of nothing feels less like a calming breathe and more like a hard crash. It is, on the whole, a minor flaw in an otherwise epic film.
Commendation should also go Chapman and McKay, who often carry the entire emotional weight of the movie on their shoulders. There’s plenty of cameos littered throughout the movie as well, including Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth, but these are mostly relegated to exposition turns. Given the nature of the film, it doesn’t feel like their talents are wasted, though one could argue that they aren’t needed at all and casting lesser-known actors may have worked in the films favor. There’s definitely a feeling of stunt casting to the bigger stars popping up and it can distract slightly.
1917 is definitely one of the best films of the year and it is truly a stunning accomplishment. I’m not sure we’ll be talking about it at the end of the next decade, however. It is great but it may not stand the test of time on the whole and have much cultural impact. For 2020, however, it’s a great way to start the year.