by Philip Price
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman & Colin Firth
Runtime: 1 hour & 59 minutes
At the risk of spoiling a truly grisly moment in writer/director Sam Mendes' latest film, there is an instance not 15 minutes into the film when our protagonist, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), injures his hand on a barbed wire fence. It is not this injury that is cause for the gruesome winces “1917” is sure to induce though, but rather that moment comes a minute or so later when Schofield's mission partner, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), knocks into him as the two hurriedly slide into a trench so as to not be spotted by enemy planes overhead. It is in this moment that occurs shortly after the film has set the stage for our expectations of what we might expect war to really feel like that it then shows us the reality of those expectations in turn aiding the audience in realizing that no amount of preparation or precedent could ever prepare one for the true nightmares that are the unspeakable things one human can subject another human to. It is in this quick, but effective moment that remained with me for the duration of the film's nearly two-hour runtime that emphasizes the power of the film in general over the would-be gimmick of the single-take experience in that not only does Mendes' and cinematographer Roger Deakins' technique provide an enticing challenge for seasoned filmmakers such as themselves, but it is in the challenge of balancing that technique with the ability to tap into something real, something raw and something that speaks to who these two men were in their souls that keeps the audience engaged.
Successful or not, the technique of it all will largely go unnoticed by general moviegoers and in turn only make the immersion greater even if that general moviegoer isn't aware of what's creating said effect. Mendes and Deakins have proven time and time again they have the skill to pull off exactly what “1917” does, but for them to ultimately have the artistry to pair that craft with the character's drive to simply do the right thing in accomplishing their mission, a mission that will save hundreds of lives, while being surrounded by the ugliness of humanity on that mission is what makes the immersive quality of the single shot idea worth the trouble; the technique elevating the film to something unexpected not in that it is a dazzling technical achievement, but an emotionally involving experience with real stakes and a clear perspective.