‘1917’ is More Than Just a One-Shot Gimmick

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It seems this awards season marks the one where cinephiles on the internet have finally started to collectively roll their eyes at war movies — and up until recently, I counted myself among them. For every Saving Private Ryan in a nomination category, there’s yet another Hacksaw Ridge or Unbroken or War Horse — those by-the-numbers, vaguely conservative films made to appeal to old white voters and showcase their technical craft. ‘Look, it’s a war,’ these films say, ‘be moved, be harrowed, be affected!’ Last year, Fox Searchlight finally released a movie about the life of JRR Tolkien, but instead of exploring his writing career or fascinating friendship with CS Lewis, it focused almost entirely on his experiences in the trenches during World War I. Sorry, but who’s interested in seeing that imagery again, man? I mean, big thank you to all those dudes who stopped the Germans twice, but haven’t we seen enough of these world war movies to get the gist?

Pair this fatigue with the role of the American military in the rest of the world growing increasingly controversial and the fact that most international conflicts don’t have the moral clarity of “Good Guys vs. Nazis” anymore, and it’s clear that the audience’s perception of war has changed. Dunkirk was the last war film to be almost universally praised by film fans — but even so, most of the hype was around Nolan’s parallel timeline twist and the way the film subverted the mold of the average WWII story. And anyway, Parasite and Knives Out came out this year! Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire! The Lighthouse and The Farewell! It’s not hard to see why the war genre — a genre populated exclusively by pasty white boys and literally no one else — might feel a little out of touch.

Despite my better judgement, I expected to be firmly ambivalent toward 1917. Sure, I knew Roger Deakins would probably give some of his best work, and I’d probably have to make myself write some little blurb about how the technical achievements were impressive; but I thought for sure that I’d wind up leaving the theater feeling nothing but vague and obligatory respect for the craft, and not much else.

So how did this become one of my favorites of the year? How is this the war movie that has moved me more than any other war movie to date?

1917 is a masterpiece. Yes, it’s probably the single greatest technical achievement of the year. But it’s so much more than just hollow technique.

Let’s talk about the “gimmick.” As any review will stress over and over, 1917 is all one shot. And yes, it’s an amazing feat. The sheer blocking, set design, background coordination and rehearsal required to stage these long sequences is enough to make anyone’s head spin. I spent the first (and last) few minutes of the movie with my hand clapped over my mouth in utter astonishment. But, as any contrarian commenter will tell you, the movie is not actually all one shot; the film consists of multiple 6–8 minute sequences seamlessly stitched and laced together through VFX and classic in-camera slight-of-hand. If there’s a non-Deakins achievement here, it’s probably on the job of the script supervisor Nicoletta Mani; the level of continuity maintained in the actors’ appearances and surrounding environments from shot to shot is what keeps you from ever slipping out of the daze. It’s like a grand magic trick where Sam Mendes is the magician.

I’ve seen multiple reviews docking points against the film because the writer discovered halfway through that the film was not actually one take, or because they noticed one or two cuts. You hear that, lads? It’s all a sham! These are just people pretending to be in a war, for a fictional movie! Those bodies aren’t actually dead people! CinemaSins has their work laid out for them, it would seem.

Really though, the film doesn’t try to fool you into believing that it’s one shot; there’s even an overt and intentional cut to black halfway through the runtime. And yes, the one-shot nature of the storytelling is impressive, but it’s not the point of the movie, and it rarely calls too much attention to itself. The more significant aspect of the premise (one that often gets overlooked) is that the events of the film are occurring in real-time. Spare for the single cut providing a small time-jump, the 1 hour and 59 minutes we see of the movie is exactly 1 hour and 59 minutes of Schofield’s life.

There’s a sense of ever-present forward momentum in the film that harkens back to something like Snowpiercer, another film which always has its characters pushing ahead and moving left-to-right, never going backward. Mostly, the one-shot format is used to further immerse (and often, exhaust) the audience in the nonstop relentlessness of the mission. At the end of a scene, where most movies would simply fade to black and jump to a later point, 1917 just keeps going. We’re forced to live and breathe with these characters, even when it’s excruciating — and likewise, the characters are forced to keep pushing forward even when they want to collapse. The most brilliant sequence in the movie is the one where Schofield, having just witnessed another character’s sudden death, is forced to get onto a truck and ride with a group of soldiers to his next destination. Schofield is still shaken, on the verge of weeping, completely disconnected from reality. The boys on the truck, oblivious to what he’s just witnessed, continue telling an embarrassing story about going to the bathroom. Schofield stares ahead, trying to be resigned, as the place where the tragedy occurred fades into the distance, lost to his memory. And then, instead of the scene fading to black and allowing the audience to take a sigh of relief, the truck gets stuck in the mud.

With any film styled to be one shot, naturalistic storytelling is usually a pretty key motivator. After all, the uncut and continuous flow in a one-shot movie is often meant to mimic how we perceive things in the real world. There are no cuts or editing in real life, so it makes sense that a movie with no cuts would be attempting to feel like real life. The one-take fight scenes in Creed serve to make us experience the boxing match as Michael B. Jordan experiences them; the long takes in Roma help us immerse within the throng of Cleo’s world without the inhibitions of editing.

Ironically, though, the one-shot format doesn’t always mimic our real human experience as much as we assume it would. Walter Murch pointed out in his book In The Blink of An Eye how editing and cuts actually push us closer to how we really perceive the world than one continuous take does. After all, when you shift your eyes from your computer screen to the clock on your wall — and blink your eyelids in the process — you’ve effectively made a cut. Despite the fact that one-shot movies are objectively more “accurate” to the human experience, given too much exposure, they can often feel paradoxically less like real life.

What does this have to do with 1917? Well, somehow Sam Mendes manages to capture the best of both worlds in his process, embracing the sense of nonstop progression that the one-shot device enables while also welcoming the heightened reality it will inevitably construct. The most interesting thing about 1917 is the way that it balances its attempt at naturalism with something more cinematic and flourishing. There are many moments in the film where it feels like we’re truly witnessing something realistic and lifelike, seeing through the eyes of a soldier and subjectively experiencing things as he does. But there are other times where the camera and framing become more omniscient, emphasizing the spectacle and making it clear that we’re watching a movie. If the intimacy and immersion in 1917 feel partially reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón, the pure joy in the filmmaking and Hollywood presentation feels like something straight of Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible playbook. Sam Mendes breaks your heart with realism and satisfies it with performance all at once.

This may have been why I connected to this movie far more than I ever did with Dunkirk: in Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan was so preoccupied with telling a story that felt naturalistic and authentic that he often ignored the satisfaction that more traditional storytelling flourish can give. Dunkirk is so “realistic” that it doesn’t have any characters or dramatic questions or narrative beats to speak about. In 1917, Mendes embraces that same “boots-on-the-ground” naturalism while also keeping a firm grip on what the audience wants to see and what makes cinema feel rewarding.

It’s a little ironic to me that the most persistent complaint about the film is that the characters feel underdeveloped and surface-level; maybe I’m drawing too much unwarranted comparison to Dunkirk, but I think in contrast to that movie, the characters here are practically 4-dimensional. While Nolan’s ‘point’ was that his protagonists were each just another face in the crowd, Mendes tactfully captures that same sentiment while also illuminating those faces as real people with real character. And it’s not just the protagonists; there are many moments in the film where we see the individual faces and humanity of each extra. There’s an overarching sense that any one of these guys could’ve been the viewpoint character— we just happened to follow these two. Rather than the notion of “a face in the crowd” making it feel like no one matters, Mendes’ empathetic framing makes it feel like everyone matters.

The character development here is somewhat reminiscent of Mad Max: Fury Road — a movie that is far more focused on character than it usually gets credit for. Like Fury Road, every scene in this film feels like it has a simple and effective dramatic question or conflict, a purpose in the overarching narrative, and a key choice or action that reveals something more about the characters. Like Fury Road, the often quiet and reserved protagonists in 1917 are fleshed out mainly by their actions and responses to the world around them, which feel individual and separate from what any other person would do in the same situation. They are audience surrogates, making us ask ourselves what we would do under their circumstances, but they don’t feel devoid of personality, either. Plus, they change! Schofield is not the same man at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. It’s not that any of this is revolutionary storytelling — it’s pretty standard, really — but in a world where many movies can receive acclaim for their technical craft and ignore character completely, it feels good that this one still puts in the effort.

It would be easy to write a review about 1917 that spends most of the length talking about the technical prowess and execution; I could just cut things off here and call it a day. Still, the emotional experience of the film was the thing that bore into my mind the most, and it’s also the hardest aspect to put into words. I was left breathless and head-spinning when the credits rolled, but not just from the “exhilarating thrills” or “adrenaline-fueled action” or any of the other review buzzwords. More than any of that, I felt like I had come a long way with these characters, felt emotions I hadn’t felt, and ultimately had my perceptions changed and deepened.

One of the novel things about 1917 is that it’s an anti-war war film; the events of the story hinge around stopping a battle, not starting one. Saying the movie is “about the horrors of war” doesn’t do it justice when that description could apply to just about any war movie ever made — and plenty of them still feel very pro-conflict. Unlike some films that paint war in itself as elegant and noble, Mendes’ direction here feels profoundly dire and hopeful all at once. In the end, the partial takeaway from Schofield’s righteous mission is that the senselessness of war is often too monstrous to be truly affected by one soldier. “Some men just want the fight,” and one must go through dozens of layers of cowardice and wartime bureaucracy to find anyone who truly has the power to make a difference in the grand scheme. Schofield’s heroism is admirable, but it’s also representative of the harsh lengths one has to endure to accomplish anything of value in the trenches; he is the exception to the rule, not the average soldier. And yet, Schofield’s heroism and determination is awe-inspiring and human— and he does make a difference. He doesn’t win the war, but he does save 1600 lives. Even in the mess and toxicity of the conflict — and it’s overarching futility and destruction — one man’s persistency remains achingly beautiful through it all.

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Despite 1917’s bleak outlook on the world, this is where I still find hope and promise at the end of the tunnel, like the light at the end of a collapsing mine shaft. Reflecting this hope throughout the film is the sprawling natural setting of northern France, which also lingers as its own character from beginning to end. There’s an almost spiritual aura to the natural environment that surrounds Schofield and Blake as they trek into enemy territory — a sense that the world is so much bigger than these puny conflicts between human beings that come and go in the blink of an eye. Trees are a constant motif: cherry trees chopped down but eventually reborn; fallen stumps blocking the road to the battlefront; floating logs providing safety from the rip-currents of the water; the forest serving as a peaceful refuge for a song before the fight, and a lonely beech tree providing a place to rest at the beginning and the end of the film. There are many small victories in 1917 that feel like nothing less than divine providence — and without fail, these moments always come with help from the natural environment. Even the river eventually takes Schofield where he needs to go, marked by falling white cherry blossoms that inspire him to hold onto life just a little longer.

If 1917 has universal meaning, it’s probably about the innocence lost in the mess of conflict…and the beauty that remains and renews long after the war is over, bigger than any human could ever be. It doesn’t need to have one single meaning, but in that moment, those petals falling on the water felt a whole lot like God to me.

Internet explorer. Student of creativity. Writer of pretentious bios. I really like movies and theme parks.

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