It seems as if we are in a day and age where cinema experiences a new technological breakthrough every few months, yet many moviegoers, myself included among the masses, are still captivated by a film that seems to be presented as one unbroken shot. Although the idea of a single extended shot, meant to stretch the entirety of the movie or not, is not a new concept, it has the cinematic ability to keep viewers engaged in a fairly simple way.
“1917”, the new war drama from Sam Mendes, is the latest attempt at the feature-length, single-shot approach, and its technological accomplishments are undeniable. Watching the movie is like watching someone play a video game for two hours in all the best ways.
As suggested by the title, “1917” is set amid World War I, taking place in and around the “no man’s land” in northern France that separated British and German troops. The film starts with two young corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), abruptly awoken from a light nap to report for a new assignment. Another company a few miles away, that includes Blake’s brother, is planning to attack at dawn to push the Germans back further.
However, the Germans are expecting the attack. The 1,600 British soldiers would be walking into the death trap in just a few hours. The two corporals are sent on foot through enemy territory to inform the company to stand down and call off the attack before it can commence. The two have been assured their path is safe, yet the first glimpse of literal hell on earth as they are met with a wide-open field of enemy territory proves otherwise. The tension within the soldiers they encounter and the carnage they witness only get worse as their journey goes on.
“1917” wanted to do what most war movies do: provide a raw description of the horrors of combat for viewers whose only frame of reference for those conflicts has been history books or other movies. 1917 did just that. With the single-shot style, viewers experienced the journey almost the same as the two corporals did.
Even after my second time seeing the film, I still felt it when Schofield cut his hand on barbed wire and, shortly after, fell with that hand ending up in an open corpse. The single-shot style required Mendes to build the complete set and walk through it with the script, so the script and set were the exact same length. Every trench, every town, and every open field had to be just the right length to match the script for the single-shot style to work seamlessly. On those terms—the film is undeniably impressive—Roger Deakins is one of the all-time best cinematographers and his work here must have been incredibly challenging but equally some of his best work.
Mendes told IMDb, “Stories are nothing unless you are emotionally engaged. You want an engagement with two characters, for which you are given very little exposition. You don’t really know who they are, and the single-shot technique allows you, I think, to live with them and breathe every breath, and watch the clock ticking down. And that feeling of never seeing further than the characters, always being trapped within their immediate environment, that was a very important part in why decided to shoot in this way.”
Some critics emphasized the downfalls of how Mendes deployed to tell his story, saying the single-shot method is only impactful in films that are so absorbing viewers fail to notice the technique at first. Yet, I, personally, did not leave the theater pondering the details on how the film was shot. I left the theater astonished by the incredible cinematography and realness of the entire storyline, and I found myself with an attachment to the characters and their feats.
Besides the critiques, “1917” has 161 nominations and 78 wins, including 10 Oscar nominations. It won Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture and Best Director. “1917” is raw and real, and a must-see whether you are a regular war movie connoisseurs or not.
Image courtesy of USA Today