How’s this for a criticism: There’s something unbearably perfect about Sam Mendes’ World War I picture 1917.
On the one hand, the film — specially formatted for IMAX’s expansive 1:90:1 aspect ratio — takes great pains to reestablish moviegoing as a necessary cinematic experience, an increasingly quaint notion in the day-and-date streaming era. But it reaches for this ambition through the self-conscious device of a faux single take.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins, borrowing from Emmanuel Lubezki’s Birdman playbook and filming with roaming cameras positioned on wire mounts, moving vehicles and human hands, deploys canny sleight of hand to invisibly mask the movie’s cuts, simulating impossibly balletic maneuvers of technical craftsmanship. This, coupled with the immaculately arranged mise-en-scène, brings a level of visual elegance that can’t help but polish up the messiness and ugliness of war. 1917 is an aesthete’s war film. Somewhere, Samuel Fuller is scoffing at such a spectacle.
Mendes, who has — unconvincingly, from this reviewer’s perspective — insisted this style is not a gimmick, justifying it by setting his story in real time. Theoretically, a single take honors the durational purity of his characters’ treacherous journey. Inspired by his father’s tales of World War I heroism, 1917 follows two soldiers in the British Army, positioned in Northern France, as they attempt to deliver a life-saving message to another battalion.
The naïve one, Lance Cpl. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), and the hardened cynic, Lance Cpl. Schofield (George MacKay), set about on what may be a suicide mission, with Deakins’ camera shadowing them through the mazy confines of their own fortification; onto the smoldering remnants of battlefields, where bodies hang like rag dolls over barriers of barbwire; into cavernous German barracks, with their carefully disguised tripwires and deadly mine shafts; toward the false respite of a remote farmhouse, and the ruins of a French village bathed in golden death.
All the while, the sound design, again befitting a viewing in a quality surround-sound cinema, captures every experiential detail, from the disruptive squawks of crows to the ominous propellers of encroaching bombers. Thomas Newman’s score, which relies too much on bombast in the movie’s later passages, achieves a tingly, Mike Oldfield-style electronic minimalism early on. In the subtle notes, we pick up on a low, ambient throb of primordial danger.
It’s all supposed to coalesce into an atmosphere of unparalleled immersion, but I kept looking for the proverbial strings — the stitching the filmmakers tried so hard to conceal. There used to be something truly magisterial about the great long takes of film history: the serpentine camera movements of Welles’ Touch of Evil, the sprawl of industry babble in Altman’s The Player, the miles of track fastidiously laid out in the traffic-jam sequence of Godard’s Week-End, the mystifying feat of moving a camera through a gated window in the finale of Antonioni’s The Passenger. Now, with the cameras lightweight and digital, and special effects that create the illusion of seamlessness, a cinematographer can cheat his way through the bravura challenges of the 35mm era.
Even knowing we’re being hoodwinked, though, Deakins and Mendes achieve remarkable feats of visual beauty and intensity — like the flare gun, which we see fired in shallow focus, whose flame appears shortly thereafter in the deep-focus distance as it descends like a shooting star. Or the careening German plane, which in an illusion of perspective appears to be spiraling down into a far field, only to bear down directly on our wary heroes at the front of the frame. And even if cheating was fundamental to the film’s vision, it doesn’t negate the choreographic ingenuity of some of its truly impressive, multi-minute takes.
But where is the human factor in all of this? We may follow corporals Blake and Schofield through their circles of wartime hell, but we know almost as much about them by the end as in the movie’s overture. The irony is that 1917, for its apparent absence of editing, is this year’s Dunkirk, a war movie overwhelmed by its fastidious, clockwork cutting. Both films, in valuing technical “mastery” over character psychology, leave the spectator cold and adrift in the area where immersion is most important.
1917. Director: Sam Mendes; Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Mark Strong, Andrew Schott, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch; Distributor: Universal; Opens: Today in some area theaters