One shot is all you get!
In 1917, at the height of World War I, the British army is preparing for an ambush on the Germans, who have seemingly pulled back. When a separate squadron of the British army decipher that this is a trap planned by the Germans, they send two young soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) to deliver a message to the front to call off the attack. The two must travel across enemy lines and through the wreckage of the war to complete their mission of delivering the warning message, to save over 1600 lives, including that of Blake’s brother, a Lieutenant.
Writer/director Sam Mendes’ previous film, Spectre, opened with a long, unbroken shot lasting four minutes, which was incredibly well-crafted. Imagine that opening shot stretched out to almost two hours, with a much better film surrounding it, and that would be 1917, in which Mendes pulls out all the stops.
Everything about this film, from the locations to the costume design, feels visceral and authentic, and there is not one moment that feels safe. There is a sense that these two soldiers will either run into danger, or will be shot at by enemy soldiers in the distance. For example, there is a sequence where the two come across a trip-wire in a trench, but while they make sure to avoid it, a rat goes near the area and threatens to set it off. Hands down, the most intense sequence, resembling an apocalyptic nightmare, involves a soldier running through a village of rubble at nighttime, while trying to avoid enemy gunfire, resembling somewhat an apocalyptic nightmare. By the time this particular sequence ends, audience members will most likely feel as out of breath as the soldier feels.
Despite featuring rotting corpses, rats, and mountains of mud and rubble, 1917 is also one of the most gorgeous-looking films of the year, due, in part to being lensed by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who finally won his long-overdue Oscar two years ago for Blade Runner 2049. Since 1917 is one long unbroken shot, one can’t help but marvel at the planning and skill it took to get the necessary camera movements and angles while not breaking either the story’s tension or the audience’s perspective. This is especially true during the moments where the two soldiers make their way through barbed wire and craters. Since Birdman, many filmmakers have attempted to include more unbroken sequences in their films. For the most part, these attempts are successful, but one could argue that unbroken shots are becoming a gimmick. While there is some truth to that view, it is still impressive to see a filmmaker tackle such a task, and with 1917, the admiration feels earned.
If one comes to 1917 expecting excellent character development, they are going to be somewhat disappointed because this movie is more about the journey across enemy territory than about the characters’ lives. This does not take away from the experience, as Dunkirk basically did the same thing. However, with more scenes of character development, 1917 could have driven it home even more and become a classic. Nevertheless, credit has to be given to both Chapman and MacKay, because both of these roles are highly demanding, both physically and mentally.
1917 is a technical marvel of modern-day filmmaking. While it may not be the most character-driven story of the year, its brutal, authentic, and epic portrayal of war is enough to recommend seeing it, especially on the big screen with a good sound system. Sam Mendes has proven himself from time to time to be an ambitious filmmaker, and with this film, based on stories told by his grandfather, who served in World War I, he proves himself yet again!