What hath Alfonso Cuarón wrought? When the director peppered his masterful film Children of Men with action sequences that unfolded in long, unbroken takes (or at least appeared to so), he was hardly the first director to employ the technique. But he launched the modern version of single-shot storytelling, using tight control and rapidly advancing technology to make the viewer feel immersed in the tense travails of the characters, getting a real-time sense of how an ambush played out or how a battle across an urban landscape would feel, inch by perilous inch. Others have drawn on the lessons of that film in varying degrees, most notably Cuarón’s friend and countryman Alejandro González Iñárritu, who flew his seemingly seamless Birdman all the way to the top prize at the Oscars.
With 1917, director Sam Mendes takes the feature-length evasion of obvious edits and applies it to a story of war, presumably with a motivation akin to Cuarón’s quest the heighten the verisimilitude of his most dramatically fraught scenes. Set during the First World War, the film begins as two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay), are charged with a unique mission. They need to travel by foot across the ravaged French countryside to warn other British troops that the attack they are about to launch is doomed to failure. With little time and fewer resources, the pair cut across unfamiliar territory, scarred by assaults and littered with corpses.
Although Mendes drew on tales he heard from his grandfather, a World War I veteran, in shaping the screenplay (he shares a writing credit with Krysty Wilson-Cairns), 1917 smacks of most familiar war-time fiction. The task is simple and the stakes are clear, and any need to develop the characters beyond bland archetypes is shored up with emotional shortcuts, such as putting Blake’s brother among the uniformed men in grave danger. The brutality of war is of course bad enough all on its own, and Mendes clearly strives to accentuate the appalling futility of pitting armed individuals against one another to settle some conflict well removed the personal interest of those firing and being felled by the bullets. There’s a sad savagery to it all, and the century since the film’s setting clearly hasn’t imparted the wisdom needed to move beyond such insane aggressions.
If Mendes’s aim is to make the ordeal of the soldiers more forceful dramatically, the continuous-take tactic actually undermines the goal. Mostly, Mendes inadvertently makes the case for artful editing. Slack scenes of men walking from one test to another offers the reminder that cutting away the superfluous material heightens tension and added power to a piece of cinema. The technical feat is impressive, without a doubt. The management of narrative is far less effective. The mechanics of the filmmaking become central, pushing the worries, challenges, and fleeting triumphs of the characters to the margins.
As usual, it’s a pleasure to gaze upon the cinematography of Roger Deakins, particularly when Mendes orchestrates the plot to allow for some of Deakins’s typical wizardly in lighting and shooting battles at night. And a cameo by Andrew Scott, playing a commanding officer who’s clearly fed up with the war, offers a jolt of personality in a cast defined by sternly serious performance. These attributes enhance the film while simultaneously feeling somewhat apart from the whole experiment, as if they insinuated themselves accidentally and Mendes had to leave them in place so as not to collapse the scheme. For all its forthright boldness of execution, 1917 is an oddly fragile artifact. There’s a hollowness to it. I recognize Mendes’s attempt at poignancy, but I don’t feel it. A movie should be more than a feat of craftsmanship.