A Birdman Goes to War.
Three years ago, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk hit the silver screens. That film was, quite simply, brilliant. A sprawling look at several young men determined to survive, all the while playing around with different areas of time to complexly intriguing effect. It seemed destined to be the definitive war film of the century. And then along comes 1917, directed by a post-Bond Sam Mendes. This film, by contrast, is the anti-Dunkirk. Instead, it focuses on just two soldiers, and plays out in real-time, via the guise of a one-take aesthetic. But one thing is certain; it is also quite brilliant.
Following two soldiers (George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman) as they are tasked with delivering an urgent message across no-man’s land, 1917’s decision to go the long-take route proves to be as effective as it is astounding to watch.
Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have made a damned impressive technical achievement, rather than a wholly groundbreaking one. The film is less an innovation, a la 2015’s Victoria, but more along the lines of Hitchock’s Rope. There are set dressings clearly placed for the ease of editing takes together, but this does not dent the film’s credibility one bit. No sir. Many other films that attempt the ol’ one-take extravaganza often end up with a lot of, frankly, boring and poor shots. But, to its credit, every frame of 1917 is damned gorgeous. Even epic. If nothing else, the film should stand as a testament to the magic that flows from Deakins’ eyes, as has come to be expected of the industry legend.
Being based on stories told by his grandfather (whom the film is also dedicated to), the film is a clear passion project for Mendes. And that passion clearly shines through. Following the two boys as they trek through hell to deliver a note is, at once, bloody tense. But from that, also deeply humanising. Hearing the two joke to each other, complain, save one another while we follow them on; it’s a camaraderie between characters and audience which would have been lost if the film was conventionally edited.
And those two boys are nigh as impressive as the camerawork. Chapman’s Blake is at once charming and heart-warming in his determination to see his mission through. If he doesn’t succeed, his brother may be put in danger. Chapman is focused, but cautious as he ventures through this nightmare. MacKay, meanwhile, gets a bit more to chew on as Schofield, whom Chapman drags along with him on the mission. Watching his frustration come to the fore provides a suitable balance to Blake’s puppy-dog loyalty, but MacKay never lets slip the clear love and respect the two have for each other. And as the film goes on and the challenges become ever greater, MacKay carries it all brilliantly.
Elsewhere, there are fun (yes, fun) cameos from bigger names scattered throughout the picture. Colin Firth crops up to deliver the start of the plot in a hard to recognise turn, while Andrew Scott turns in what is probably the best of the rest of the bit-parts as a sardonic lieutenant. The decision to give the story over to two relative unknowns proves to be a wise move on the part of Mendes, for if the two lads were big name stars it would simply distract too much from the story. As some of these cameos do, however impressively acted they are.
And with such a bold move for a film, there are, of course, limitations that come with it. While the effect of the single-take formula enhances the emotional connection with the characters, it equally becomes a helluva distraction. It’s so hard not to be amazed by the cinematography that one will likely find themselves yanked out of the story, only to be pulled back in once something loud and dangerous happens. It’s a yo-yo effect that hurts the authenticity the film seems to shoot for. It’s also hard to not to ask; why bother? Had the film been conventionally edited, it’s likely said distraction may have never happened at all. The film may have lost its main technical draw, but it would give more way to the engaging story rather than an astounding gimmick.
And while it’s hard to deny Mendes’ clear relationship to the material, its hard to find anything explicitly unique within the story presented. While the film a truly engrossing portrait of the human spirit facing off against insurmountable odds, we’ve simply seen it before.
That being said, 1917 remains a staggering visual experience that simply must be experienced for its beauty, commitment, passion and performances. Mendes has always boasted the credential of being an interesting and beautiful voice in modern cinema, and 1917 is yet another feather in his cap. Grand, yet humble. Small, but mighty. Quite flawed, but never fails.