Incredible ambition and impeccable craft are, at once, the engines that propel 1917 and the brakes that keep it from reaching takeoff speed. It’s a fascinating frustration, this film so meticulously constructed that the construction dominates the viewing experience, consuming whatever narrative power might otherwise exist in a more traditional film form – the storytelling overwhelming the story. The resulting film is certainly a must-see as a cinematic craft showcase, but that craft showcase becomes such a focal point that the story and characters fade into the background.
Odd to mention characters fading into the background when 1917 places its characters squarely in the foreground for the entirety of its running time and we follow them continuously for two straight hours. That’s the conceit of director Sam Mendes’ latest cinematic experiment, a ticking-clock WWI thriller designed to take place in a single “unbroken” shot (the transitions all hidden as the camera tilts into darkness or swipes into action), one so painstaking in its exactitude that it’s impossible to deny the sterling craft on display…but it’s also hard to pay attention to anything else that’s happening in the frame.
In narrative terms, the film’s driving force is a high-stakes mission: two Lance Corporals, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are tasked with crossing into enemy territory to deliver a message warning a British battalion of 1,600 men – including Blake’s own brother – from advancing into an ambush at the hands of the Germans. The camera follows Schofield and Blake as they embark on this risky mission – and I mean literally follows, incessantly, a steadicam walking behind the characters in carefully constructed extended sequences, as necessitated by the film’s single-take simulation. The deliberate refusal of traditional editing techniques means that these young actors – who are quite good and ably carry the film on their shoulders – are often denied the potent dramatic beats that an editor could’ve built. It also, oddly enough, lends the film a certain episodic quality, since our heroes move from one dangerous war zone to another, at each stop receiving a new piece of information from a famous British actor in a “hey, look!” cameo, from Colin Firth to Mark Strong to Benedict Cumberbatch, the intent of which is to propel the film’s forward motion but actually stopping it in its tracks.
Mendes’ calculated assumption is that what 1917 lacks in edited drama, it makes up for in first-person tension. The intent is to keep the film in the present tense from beginning to end, to engineer a real-time experience even as the story traverses several settings, so the anxiety never lets up. But the film’s self-imposed formal trappings are so dominant and so precise that the effect is never as immersive as the filmmakers intend – in fact, the style keeps us at arm’s length. There’s also a certain video game quality to this deliberate follow-along mission construct, from the floating camera to the choreographed surrounding action to the all-too-frequent bits of dialogue that seem to invite the camera to move toward a crucial piece of narrative information, since there’s no other angle to cut to.
None of that is to suggest the film isn’t well-made; to the contrary, it’s quite spectacularly mounted from a technical perspective. Cinematographer Roger Deakins creates a visual world that is fully dynamic and still as transitionally seamless as possible under these specific circumstances. He also, mercifully, works with Mendes to generate some genuinely powerful set frames amid the constant motion. Thomas Newman, another frequent Mendes collaborator, delivers a booming, powerful score, creating a propulsive sonic environment that the film’s ambitious visual form can never quite match. That ambition is nevertheless admirable, a bold big swing from a director whose deepest history is in theater, but who is eager to play with the tools of cinema. In 1917 he uses those tools to create something surprisingly theatrical – the unbroken shot format is intended to open this world up, but ultimately encases it within a rigid proscenium.