1917 (Movie Review)

**1/2 out of ****
Rated R
(for war violence, some disturbing images, and language)
Released: December 25, 2019 limited; expands January 10, 2020
Runtime: 118 minutes
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Colin Firth

Director Sam Mendes’ so-called “one shot” war movie makes the case — albeit unintentionally — for editing.

A technical feat teeming with ambition, 1917 is to be admired (as are its makers, by extension) for what it physically attempts and ultimately pulls off. Its signature aesthetic, however – an unbroken, continuous narrative – ends up muting the power and vigor that this crucible intends to evoke, exposing the limits of real-time dramaturgy.

Inspired by a mission that Mendes’ grandfather was sent on during World War I, 1917 follows two young British soldiers across the battlefields of trench warfare. The pair has been tasked with delivering a message to a regiment before it embarks on a scheduled, deadly campaign that would unwittingly send them straight into an enemy trap. Further amplifying the stakes: a brother of one of the two soldiers is in that regiment.

With that “ticking clock” device as a driver, Mendes makes the bold decision to follow their mission from beginning to end in a virtual single take, broken only once by a cut to black that enables the writer/director to jump from day to night. 1917 wasn’t literally filmed for these two durations, but its series of masked long takes are seamlessly blended to affect a sustained, uninterrupted event.

The reasoning behind Mendes’ approach is clear: to have us undergo this harrowing journey in the same way that the soldiers experience it. Doing so should magnify the grueling peril of it all. That’s an intriguing prospect, in theory, but the execution of it here proves the opposite, resulting in something more akin to a tedious slog. Then, by the second half, it shifts to become an increasingly preposterous gauntlet.

That’s unfortunate, and it need not be for a variety of reasons. We experience live theatre, for example, in a similar manner (something that Mendes has an acclaimed background in), but to match that degree of riveting theatricality a story must be propelled by layered characters and provocative ideas — two things that this screenplay sorely lacks.

The narrative doesn’t go much deeper than the hook of its premise. Lengthy passages between key action sequences are padded out with boilerplate conversations about the horrors of war, the soldiers’ fears, family longed for, etc., all of a sort that are regurgitated from previous, better films. There’s nothing philosophically distinct here, let alone new.

Take, by comparison, a film like Birdman, another recent “one take” movie. With a story set in the theatre world, it embraced the foundations of that medium, propelled by the crescendoing momentum of a complex central character and enriched by supporting characters who challenge the protagonist’s weaknesses, all fueled by an underlying self-critique from writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu about artistic pretense.

1917 has none of these things. Sure, it has an idea and some technical daring, but nothing more. That’s tough to sustain for two hours.

Even so, with effective cinematic language and form, it could be sufficient. That’s where editing becomes so vital, not only for jumping past interstitial activity between crucial events but, perhaps even more importantly, in creating rhythms. Editing is the craft of tempo, of rendering ebbs and flows from intense to intimate, all building with collective purpose.

Without that technique here, we’re stuck in an extended “first person shooter” frame that stifles dramatic rhythm, holding the viewer captive in lengthy walks through trenches or plodding hikes across abandoned war-torn fields. The conversations through these stretches aren’t particularly compelling, either.

In theatre, dialogue (or its judicious absence) can anchor tempo, as can the particular energies of performances. 1917 is lacking in the former and thus undercuts the latter, even for its able leads George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman. Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns strain to compensate for these deficiencies with contrived pit-stops, but these moments (like an encounter with a mother and a newborn baby) stand out for the wrong reasons, emphasizing how the time-sensitive mission is being put on hold for dramatic filler and emotional manipulation.

This, ultimately, is a fault in storytelling and construction, not of the collaborators who put so much admirable work into the whole endeavor. The endurance required by everyone involved, both in front of the camera and behind it, is staggering to consider and worthy of praise. All are to be lauded, perhaps especially the Production Design team led by Dennis Gassner.

Praising the cinematography of Roger Deakins is the more obvious rave, what with its challenging coordination between camera and actor to constantly frame and reframe action within a single take (compounded by multiple levels of epic action, perfectly timed), but it’s not the most impressive feat here.

The camera and actors trek through a physical reality built out on a gigantic scale. Locations of this complexity and grandeur are traditionally cheated due to the nature of cutting and editing. Without that safety net, Gassner’s team had no choice but to build multiple, complete locations within walking distance of each other. It’s a bit insane to consider, quite honestly, and they actually did it. Hand him the Oscar now. (UPDATE: it went to Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.)

No doubt  certain sequences benefit from the unbroken action; an encounter with an enemy soldier at the climax of the first act comes to mind, as does the night-time war sequence turning point. Each of these set pieces could’ve made an even stronger impact, quite frankly, had the stretches between them been assembled with more propulsive editorial design.

Given the production’s monumental scope, it’d be too glib to pass it all off as a gimmick. It’s certainly more than that. The constraints of the construct, however, keep it from generating a necessary, escalating urgency, putting a serious drag on what Mendes intends to be an immersive, feature-length onslaught. For an experience so reliant on raw viscera, it needed more of it.

Film editing isn’t merely a function; it’s an art unto itself. That art is conspicuously absent in 1917.

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