'1917' is a thrilling triumph

Courtesy PhotoDean-Charles Chapman, left, and George MacKay star in '1917'

Much of the conversation around “1917,” Sam Mendes’ World War I thriller partially based on stories told to him by his own grandfather, going into the 2019/2020 awards season has been centered on the supposed “gimmick” at the heart of the film.

In an effort to inject a greater sense of urgency into the story, and perhaps just for the fun of a filmmaking challenge, he and cinematographer Roger Deakins opted for a “one-take” style to shoot the film. There are cuts in “1917,” but they’re rare, and most of them are hidden by things like dark corridors. For most of its two-hour runtime, Mendes’ film is an unblinking, constantly moving eye staring at the horrors of war. 

That particular cinematic choice, and the way it impacts the film, is certainly worth discussing, but painting it as some kind of gimmick makes it seem like the “one-take” filmmaking approach is the only reason to see “1917,” and that’s far from the case. One-take films have been done before, after all. Alfred Hitchcock did it with “Rope” long before digital filmmaking made the process easier, and just a few years ago Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu did it with “Birdman.” It’s not just some cinematic magic trick meant to pad the box office. No, the kind of filmmaking present in “1917” is there for a reason, as part of a greater whole that makes it one of the best films of the year and a formidable Best Picture contender at the Oscars next month.

Like many of the best war films, the plot behind “1917” is blissfully simple, so simple that the trailers for the film explain it within in a matter of seconds. Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay), two soldiers in the British army, are tasked with a dangerous mission and a ticking clock. A large number of British troops, including Blake’s older brother, are about to be caught in a trap by German forces, and the only way High Command can warn them is to send a runner to deliver the message. With just hours to save hundreds of men, Blake and Schofield must venture out into No Man’s Land, and the unknown dangers lurking beyond it.

That’s the entire setup. In the same way that “Saving Private Ryan” was “go find this one guy,” this film is “go deliver this one letter.” The trick then, is what happens on the way, and it’s there that a great many films that traffic in this level of simplicity get bogged down. When the catalyst for your story is that simple and that direct – something that happens a lot in war films, because they’re often about men following a direct order – there’s a tendency to start thinking that you need to pack the middle of your story with grand events. Certain producers might start clamoring for things like “an action beat every 10 pages” when blockbusters start from such a simple setup, and that’s how films get overwhelmed with big, explosive sequences in which a lot happens, but nothing really matters.

Thankfully, Mendes – who’s done his share of blockbuster work via the excellent Bond film “Skyfall” – knows that telling a good story is often as much about what doesn’t happen as what does, and as a result “1917” is a masterclass in suspense. Mendes’ constantly moving camera, tracking up hills and around corners with slow precision, creates the sense that anything could be lurking close by, and we don’t know whether that’s a garden variety rat or a German plane. Thomas Newman’s brilliant score, which seems to rise and fall with the characters’ heartbeats, heightens this effect, creating a palpable sense of unpredictability and tension even in the brightest of moments in the film.

It’s in this sense of tension that it also becomes quite clear why Mendes chose to shoot the film in long takes. With the help of Deakins – who’s still the best cinematographer in the world – he creates a sweeping tapestry of the mundane, the bizarre, and the shocking, in which no element seems more important than any other. For these two soldiers, traversing the European landscape with the lives of many of their comrades on the line, a wrong step in a trench could be just as important as dodging a shot from a German sniper. Every step counts, every heartbeat, every breath, and having the camera follow our heroes in such an unbroken chain of moments serves to underline that. It’s far more than a gimmick. It’s a statement that every moment these two men have is precious, and therefore worthy of consideration.

Of course, that only works if the actors are along for the ride, and in that capacity both Chapman and MacKay rise to the occasion and prove themselves more than capable of carrying this harrowing film. It’s a shame that neither of them – MacKay in particular – is getting as much attention as the film itself this awards season. They’re stars in the making, throwing themselves into every second of this film with intensity, vulnerability, and heart.

So yes, “1917” is so much more than a filmmaking gimmick. It’s a taut, thrilling triumph of a movie, one of the best of the year, and a film that absolutely deserves all of the hype it’s already received, and all the hype it’s about to receive as we head into Oscar season.

‘1917’ is in theaters everywhere January 10.