Back in October of last year, director Martin Scorsese faced some backlash following an interview with Empire Magazine in which he expressed the opinion that the massively popular superheroes movies put out by Marvel Studios aren't, by his definition, true "cinema." He went on to praise the skill with which those films are made, but stated that he feels they are closer to theme parks than actual movies.
I thought of his comments while watching "1917," the new World War I epic from director Sam Mendes ("Skyfall"). The movie is an astonishing feat of filmmaking: exciting, impeccably crafted, gorgeously shot, and well-performed by its cast. But in many ways it feels like the prestige picture equivalent of that thrill ride experience Scorsese was talking about.
George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman play Schofield and Blake, British lance corporals who are tasked with a dangerous mission to cross into enemy territory. They're sent to deliver a message to stop another battalion from walking straight into a deadly trap laid by the Germans, and hopefully prevent the deaths of 1,600 of their fellow soldiers -- Blake's own brother among them.
What sets "1917" apart from other, similar war epics is Mendes' decision to shoot in a way that makes the entire film appear to be comprised of one single, unbroken shot. Obviously that's not really the case (the film's made up of many shorter shots, digitally stitched together to create the impression that each is connected) but aside from one obvious break when a character loses consciousness and the screen briefly cuts to black, the effect is pretty seamless. Mendes' direction, along with cinematography, blocking, choreography, and special effects, work together to create something jaw-dropping.
Much of the film unfolds in real time, building up the tension. The one-take technique creates a heightened immediacy and urgency to the action, and we're right there with the two men for every step of their journey. Schofield and Blake's race-against-time mission leads us across the battlefields of Northern France, through bombed-out villages, and down into the trenches. All the while, the men are forced to keep constantly moving forward in an attempt to stay one step ahead of death. It's harrowingly visceral, immersing us in the men's physical and existential terror.
Mendes doesn't aim for gritty realism, and the film begins to take on a strangely dreamlike texture as it goes on. The script, co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, maintains an episodic structure. There's a certain video game-like quality as well, with the men moving from one situation to the next, encountering mini-missions that require them to utilize different skills before they get to the next challenge. Unstick a transport vehicle from the mud, now deliver an item to one of the non-playable characters, now take out that sniper.
Brief cameos from a few recognizable faces (Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and a memorable Andrew Scott among them) as significant but minor characters can be jarring, even though they deliver good performances.
Trauma and death become such a fact of life for these men that they've grown almost immune to the casual horrors they witness. Climbing over the bodies of fallen soldiers is a fact of survival; dead horses and corpses become just landmarks to determine location.
The cinematography of legendary director of photography Roger Deakins is often stunning, utilizing as much natural lighting as possible. Deakins finds a richness in the barren landscapes and creates some arresting images, like a journey through the rubble of a bombed out village, lit only by flames and flashes of artillery fire overhead. Thomas Newman's score adds a ticking-clock suspense to the journey; you can hear the influence of Hans Zimmer's work on Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" in the music.
"1917" succeeds in conveying the brutality and horror as well as the deep sorrow of war. MacKay's everyman performance -- playing a young man plucked from obscurity to take on a heroic task -- is particularly effective. But the script puts Schofield and Blake through so much, at a certain point it starts to undercut the film's attempt to honor the bravery of ordinary soldiers by making the two men feel like something more.
There are times when the one-take gimmick does feel like just that. It creates a certain awareness in the viewer, and there are moments when I was taken out, wondering how the filmmakers achieved a particular shot instead of remaining fully invested in the story. The technical skill it took to make "1917" is undeniably impressive and as a formal exercise, it's impossible not to admire. But when it comes to that crucial emotional connection, it left me feeling stranded in no man's land.
Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.