It’s amazing how something plain and simple can expand into something beyond belief or control. It happens every day. A rumor spreads fast and loose, ballooning into an outright scandal. A traffic accident at the wrong time and place can escalate into a humongous multi-car pileup. A moment of levity from a mother and a Chewbacca mask can explode into overnight viral stardom.
Such is the case with Sam Mendes’ latest film, 1917. Set during World War I, the basic story began as a “fragment” of a tale told to him by his grandfather, who served in the Great War, and now he’s expanded it into a modern war epic of escalating tension and action, all presented as if it were a single shot. It’s a concept that’s been done before, notably by recent Best Picture winner Birdman, and if I’m being 100% honest, Birdman probably did it better. But that doesn’t stop this film from being an engaging and occasionally thrilling adventure.
Beginning innocently enough with two English soldiers being kicked awake from a nap, Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, aka Tommen Baratheon) and Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay from Captain Fantastic) arise from a peaceful spot under a tree and make the long walk down into their Allied bunker to receive special orders from their commanding officer, General Erinmore (Colin Firth). They are to hand deliver a message to a battalion some 10 miles away at the front lines, calling off a planned attack scheduled for the next morning, as an apparent German retreat is actually a trap. Blake is chosen for the mission because his brother Joseph (Richard Madden, aka Robb Stark for the sake of symmetry) is a part of that battalion, which gives him extra incentive to succeed. It’s a little task – deliver a letter – that has epic consequences. As I said, the smallest things can grow beyond any expected scale.
From this opening sequence, the artistic direction of the film is laid bare. With the expertise of Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, Mendes is able to lead Chapman and MacKay from a serene spot in the French countryside to a hardened arena of war in just a few highly choreographed seconds. It’s a tremendous undertaking with this scene as well as many others, as the one-shot effect requires a lot of camera movement, long tracking shots, and pinpoint blocking of all the actors and technicians. It’s estimated that some sequences, like the ending attack itself, required more than 500 background extras to pull off. Even if this film were abject shit – which it decidedly is not – that would be impressive.
Obviously, the entire film can’t be done in one take, so it’s a bit of fun trying to find the moments where Mendes is able to sneak in a shot change. There are two dedicated cuts at the end of the first two acts, but along the way, basically any time the focal actor is being filmed from behind turning a corner, or whenever a rock or some other object passes between the focal point and the lens, you can assume a cut has been made.
There’s not much to be said about the acting in the film. The cast is adequate enough, but honestly there’s not much in the way of dialogue, and a lot of the acting is done through motions around the camera and the various sets. The best “performance” probably comes from Benedict Cumberbatch as the commanding officer of the second battalion at the film’s end. There are still some decent character moments, like Blake observing cherry trees that had been chopped down, but there really aren’t too many lines to deliver in the grand scheme of things, and what is said barely registers above mundane. Blake and Schofield trade stories of home, a few military tactics are bandied about, civilians are told to be quiet for their own safety, English and German soldiers scream at one another. It’s all very run of the mill, but it’s not bad by any measure.
The crux of the story is in the journey, which takes Schofield and Blake over numerous different terrains before it’s all said and done, and it’s the interactions within those environments that drives the dramatic tension. We even get a few decently startling moments, like seeing corpses in No Man’s Land, or a rat setting off a booby trap in an abandoned bunker. There is a point where it becomes a bit tiresome, though, and that’s basically the entire third act. Whereas before Schofield and Blake were looking out for one another and helping each other out of thrilling life-or-death situations, by the latter third of the film it basically devolves into stupid, ludicrous survival, as German soldiers develop the sharpshooting aim of your average Stormtrooper and our heroes are literally falling over themselves (not to mention waterfalls) with nary a scratch.
And while the scope of the film is epic, the one-shot effect at times dulls the proceedings. For example, there’s a moment where Schofield gets picked up by a passing troop convoy. He rides in the truck for about two minutes, chats the other soldiers up, then a blown out bridge forces him to get out and continue on foot. However, in that infinitesimal space of time, the environment has completely changed, and there’s no sign of the previous location, even though the truck was essentially driving in a straight line.
Compare that to a film like Birdman, which earned huge praise with this gimmick a few years ago. That movie was mostly confined to the tight space of a Broadway theatre, with narrow passageways and small dressing rooms and staircases that wavered between varying degrees of intimate and uncomfortable closeness. You also had a much more dialogue-driven plot with multi-layered character motivations and story threads to keep up with. It made for a madcap and sometimes claustrophobic bit of smart comedy, well worthy of its Best Picture win. 1917, for all its sheen and grand scale, is really just two guys walking from Point A to Point B with a few dangerous distractions and detours along the way. While they do the job well, Blake and Schofield might as well be Frodo and Sam, only without the rich world-building.
This is not to put the film down. I thoroughly enjoyed myself the entire way through. The camera work is superb, the editing nearly airtight, and the sound and visual effects are pretty spectacular, to say nothing of Thomas Newman’s intense score. All of these elements are worthy of serious Oscar consideration.
I’m just a little confused as to why it won the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Drama, when there’s really no drama to the proceedings. I’m a little confused as to how it got a BAFTA nomination for its screenplay, when there’s barely a script. This is a very good film, bordering on great, but let’s cool our collective jets for a moment and appreciate the film for what it is, not what we want it to be. Like the movie itself, the hype around it is taking the little truths about its quality and blowing them way out of proportion. Sam Mendes made a really good movie out of a kernel of an anecdote from his veteran grandfather (to whom the film is dedicated). Don’t get carried away and act like this is the greatest thing since sliced bread. It’s good, but it’s all been done before. Like the bunkers and battlefields of WWI France itself, this is well-worn ground we’re covering here.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you think this is awards worthy? Are you a fan of one-shot style movies? Let me know!