One long continuous shot. One tracking shot. When Martin Scorsese wanted to impress his audience during his movie “Goodfellas,” he did it with his famous two-minute-long Copacabana scene. Now, “1917” does that very same thing for 119 minutes. No cuts, (almost) no fades to blacks, no edits. This is what “1917” is and why it is at the very least a technical wonder. The fact it also brings a compelling story, impressive tension and a cast of talented actors just adds to the merits of the movie.
The film follows two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield, toward the end of World War 1. When Blake is told his brother is one of over a thousand men about to be lead into a German ambush, he and Schofield have until tomorrow morning to traverse miles of enemy territory with written orders that will save the men’s lives.
This day-long mission is filled with German soldiers, traps and snipers, and the audience is taken along for every brutal second. Let’s dig into “1917’s” methodology for a second.
By disallowing audiences to take their eyes off the characters, they’re forced to see every second of their race against time, watching them physically and mentally break down. The tension builds with every second as the time goes by, and the audience is forced to stay focused the whole time, tiring the viewers out almost as much as the characters.
Are there moments where the filmmakers cheat? Sure. There’s even a very deliberate cut to black in the middle, but aside from those few moments, “1917” succeeds in grabbing the viewer’s attention and refusing to let go.
Such a gimmick is likely a nightmare for any actor, but the leads, Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, prove they’re more than up for the task. Chapman plays LC Blake, who is dead-set on saving his brother’s life. He is aided with a certain innocence and naivety toward war, which his friend, Schofield, a more cynical veteran played by MacKay, doesn’t share.
The pair’s brotherly dynamic is established right off the bat, with quieter moments of them telling stories and debating the merit of medals. The audience grows to care about them and their goal. By the end of the film, you’re desperate for the mission to succeed, if only to let them finally rest. MacKay in particular shines at the end, where even after giving every ounce of his energy to stay alive, you can see one last fire explode in him as he reaches the last leg of the journey.
Our two leads aren’t the only actors worth noting in the film, and indeed three big names, Colin Firth, Mark Strong and even Benedict Cumberbatch, make small appearances in the film in prominent roles. While the famous actors may have helped draw audiences into the theater, their on-screen presence served only to break immersion and remind the audience they were indeed watching a film and not actually experiencing the mission alongside our characters. This is the biggest flaw in the film, yet it is far from a worthy reason to condemn it.
While the film’s singular focus on the main storyline results in a well-paced heart-pounding film, it does have some drawbacks. There are few moments of pause in the film where the characters and audience are invited to stop and breathe. This naturally means those moments are used to rest, and there’s little time for character development or subplots.
Outside of a few particular scenes, the little information the viewers learn of the main characters’ interiority doesn’t feel particularly important in-between bouts of running or action. While in other movies, this could lead to a world that lacks feeling or two-dimensional characters, here audiences get just enough moments of clever characterization and beautiful scene-setting to avoid those issues.
Overall, “1917” transcends being a war film and instead becomes an experience. The director, Sam Mendes, succeeds in not only pulling off an impressive technical achievement but tells a captivating tale of the horror of war and the heroism of its soldiers.