1917 (2019, directed by Sam Mendes. U.S.A./U.K., in English [some parts in French and German are subtitled], Color, 117 minutes) Watching “1917” I realized that technical innovation without purpose is pointless.
A major talking point about the latest film by Sam Mendes is that the film has the appearance of being shot in a single take. A few cuts in the film prevent this from being true, but nonetheless it has long, interrupting shots that keep us with English soldiers in the (first) fight against the Germans in the 20th century.
Alas, at what point is technique worth more than the story being told, especially in cinema?
Approximately 100 years ago stories of war/battle crossed paths with cinema into a technical and historic achievement that redefined film language: “The Birth of a Nation.” The still-controversial tale about the divided south of the Civil War and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan is still a cherished piece of film history for what director D.W. Griffin brought to the medium (a film longer than one reel, editing, tracking shots, etc.). Subject matter aside, it is one of the most important films in history, so much so that a 2016 film of the same name about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion doesn’t even register as the first film to come up on a Google search: the 1915 film still reigns supreme.
At the same time “The Birth of a Nation” came out the Great War (WWI) was in the trenches, literally, of the fight throughout Europe. Fast forward 100 years and there are just as many Civil War-era pictures as World War I pictures that have become iconic. As these war stories shift from perspective to differing locations and themes over the decades, the tropes of these stories have been building, recycled endlessly from generation to generation, celluloid to digital cinema package.
For as inventive and sweepingly beautiful “1917” is, it is truly nothing more than a continuation of those tropes, and that makes the film tumble under its own self-absorbed technical genius.
To think that a war movie could be “shot” in one continuous take is a maddeningly genius idea considering the complexities of stunts for battle, crowds, staying historically accurate, moving around locations if part of a bigger story, etc. “1917” glides along on all of those fronts as two young lance corporals, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are tasked to walk across enemy territory to tell their comrades towns over to not engage in battle against the Germans the next morning. Long sweeping shots show the young corporals running across dead lands filled with corpses, rats, destitute, rage and mild glimpses of hope. It’s a real drain on the emotions to be moving with these soldiers in real time through the horrors of war.
Alas, what we see for almost two hours is nothing so different about a story that has not been seen over and again in dozens of other movies. What’s worse, the tropes add on to the convenience of propelling the story forward so the audience can have the expectation that the goal will be met. No need making a film about a main character dying in the first 20 minutes, right? To counter that, characters go through the usual events that make any one person we have invested our time with to make it to the end credits: fighting an enemy force that can never accurately shoot their target (the protagonist); running through gun fire without getting hit; making the disastrous choice to help the enemy; charging the enemy in an open field where the protagonist runs free without being shot or hit by an explosion while others easily fall; and reaching out to an unseen character related to one of the main characters.
“1917” hands the characters, and us, conveniences that will not allow the mission to be cut short. The audience, the actors, the director and all other filmmakers are committed to an end that will guarantee a conclusion that will be satisfying enough for the hardships we all endured: to take the easy way out would never be accepted. But that is what comes at the end of it all for “1917”. A vapid, predictable journey through battlefields is marketed as a remarkable achievement in cinema (at best) or another in-the-trenches war picture (at worst) because it appears to re-vamp the war story on a technicality to make it seem like it was done in one take. What’s worse is that any mainstream audience member could possibly bypass the single-take approach of the film because they see the predictable tropes that make for a familiar experience. At this time, is it possible to say “1917” was made for critical laurels, or audience approval? Critics are already fawning over the film’s technical prowess and emotional depth as I sit back and see the film for what it really is under the creative surge to make it look like a technical innovation.
What Mendes, an Oscar-winner for helming 1999’s “American Beauty”, is doing is creatively manipulating its audience to make him seem genius when his tactics are already decades old. Alfred Hitchcock took the reins with his 1948 thriller “Rope” to make it seem like a day-long party is one single take when it was creatively edited from 10 long takes. In that time, tension built to see what would become of two murderers and a body hiding in the main entertaining space. Cut to 2002 and “Russian Ark” was released, the film that was officially done in one take as a 90-minute tour throughout the Hermitage Museum crossed historical, and spatial, boundaries to tell us the story of Russia. Then in 2015 came “Victoria” a 138-minute single-take thriller. Obviously, the technology has advanced to create a whole film in one take (the depth of the story withstanding).
The particularity of how Mendes uses the extended long take style is that it changes the camera from being an objective storytelling tool to a subjective one. The viewer has no attempt to think independently about the task at hand or the characters chosen to accomplish it because the director and screenwriters (Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Caims) made the conscious decision to restrict the story so much that there is nothing else to experience, and to a fault. I’m not watching an action, I am the action: I don’t want to be the action. The story unfolds by the audience wanting to live until the “end”, pulling out an immediate probability that the protagonists were any two of the 30 million who were hurt or injured in the conflict. Transforming the camera into a subjective observer makes “1917” a product of pre-destination fantastic optimism as to distort the film into another outing of a highly-detailed POV war video game.
Using the long take approach is what made “1917” appear to be an amazing technical achievement, but it is not appropriate for extended/dominated use in a film set in a war zone knowing what the outcome will be. The illusion of following people for over 100 un-interrupted minutes in a war zone tells you that the people we start out with will most likely stay until the end. This film tries too hard to be innovative for a story that relies on too many tropes of ridiculousness to keep it alive. “1917” is a grand excuse to make cheap war/action movie clichés seem acceptable in the face of art. I wasn’t buying it.
"1917" is scheduled for a limited release on Dec. 25 with nationwide expansion on Jan. 10.