Much hoopla has been made about how Sam Mendes’ latest film, 1917, has been shot, as though the entire film has been told in one unbroken take. It’s the type of challenge that made cinematographer Roger Deakins turn down filming Denis Villeneuve’s new Dune, and this unconventional way of telling this story has become more the point than the bare story 1917 is trying to tell.
As if trying to outdo Steven Spielberg’s massive Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan, or the twisty restructuring of time in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Mendes’ approach to this material is little more than a way to showoff, a directorial approach that doesn’t match with the story Mendes tells. To paraphrase another film that wore its technical achievements on its sleeve, Mendes was so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Set on April 6, 1917, the British have learned that the Germans aren’t retreating as they believed, but instead, are creating a trap for the advancing British soldiers. With no way to contact these troops, the result could lead to 1,600 deaths. In order to stop this bombardment from happening, officer Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) – whose brother is in the group about to be attacked – has been selected to cross enemy territory and deliver the intel to stop the attack personally. Blake, along with his friend Schofield (George MacKay) have hours to deliver the message, or Blake’s brother and plenty more men will soon be dead.
This sense of urgency within this story seems it should be well-suited with the one-shot attempt Mendes wants to take, but the two never coalesce in a tense, fitting way. Mendes – his first time writing one of his films, alongside Krysty Wilson-Cairns – fills 1917 with plenty of downtime, meandering conversations and naturally, tons of walking. Much of this is likely to set upcoming scenes to continue the illusion that this is all one-shot, yet the script doesn’t fit the critical nature of the plot or the technique.
Granted, that doesn’t make Deakins’ technique any less impressive, as the film constantly does 360 shots of these two lead characters to sell the realism, and some of the longer tracking shots can be quite well-done. Especially when the sun is rising and smoke and gunfire is going off in the distance, 1917 shows Deakins doing some fantastic work. Yet of course 1917 isn’t actually told in one large take, and the “cheats” the film takes to mask the cuts is often distracting and obvious. If the objective is to build tension with an unbroken film, pointing the camera at a pile of mud, or following the lead characters into a dark hallway that completely blackens the frame are cheap ways to mask the cuts that are happening.
But beyond its occasional camera mastery, 1917’s story doesn’t maintain pressure, nor does it provide characters worth feeling nervous for. 1917 is told exclusively through the vantage point of Blake and Schofield, but Mendes and Wilson-Cairns’ script never gives any reason to latch onto these characters, besides their present goal. Nothing is learned of these two – besides the fact that Blake has a brother – and even in the film’s downtime, no details are shared that provide any information about who these men are that separates them from the legions of other soldiers around them.
By trying to make an immersive war experience with 1917, Mendes has kept his audience at a distance, with generic characters and a disappointment of a directing technique that distracts more than envelops. Instead of trying to lift up the soldiers that have gone through hell, Mendes’ ends up trying to praise his brilliance as a director, and ultimately fails.