GREG'S GRADE: A
The "one shot" movie always will be a gimmick. Editing is what makes it possible for a filmmaker to tell a story, so removing that essential tool can't help but call attention to itself.
Of course, none of these movies — going back to Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" in 1948 and including the Oscar-winning "Birdman" in 2014 — is filmed in a single take; clever editors and cinematographers disguise the cuts to create the illusion of one long, continuous shot. These movies typically are talky affairs, confined mostly to one location — an apartment and the backstage theater in the previous examples.
In the harrowing and exhilarating "1917," director/co-writer Sam Mendes applies the gimmick to a war movie, taking the camera of the great cinematographer Roger Deakins into the trenches, across no man's land and onto the front lines of World War I. It is, by far, the most ambitious film of its kind I've seen, and it's gripping to the point you almost forget about the gimmick that pulls it all together.
Without noticeable editing — aside from one obvious fade to black used to transition into act three — camera movement and movement within the frame create the film's rhythm and pacing. Deakins' camera moves are consistently artful and with purpose, never the herky-jerky, handheld chaos one might expect, even when bullets fly and a plane crashes.
The illusion of continuity emphasizes the impossibly close quarters of the trenches, the harsh conditions of the battlefield and the many dangers that could be lurking just beyond the camera's field of vision. It's as if the camera is a character of its own, commenting on the action based on its placement and movement.
While it never downplays the horrors of war, there is an almost lyrical quality to much of the shot composition, starting in a lush field, mere steps away from the cramped, muddy trenches, where a young British soldier, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, recognizable to "Game of Thrones" fans as Prince/King Tommen), lounges during a peaceful afternoon. He's roused from his relaxation and given a crucial mission. With the Germans having abandoned their previous position in apparent retreat, another British unit is preparing to attack in the morning — walking straight into the Germans' trap. Blake must reach that unit, of which his brother is a member, to relay orders to call off that attack.
Blake's friend, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), has the misfortune to be hanging out near him, and is drafted into the mission, as well.
You almost expect to be wowed by the technical aspects of a movie like "1917"; the amount of practical effects involved make each long take incredibly complex. You might not anticipate becoming engrossed in the story, but largely due to a pair of determined performances by MacKay and Chapman, plus a bunch of familiar faces in supporting roles (including Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch), "1917" has that effect.
What may start in the viewer's mind as a gimmick becomes a tale of endurance — echoed by the endurance of the entire production team to capture each long take on film — and of the lengths a man will go to for his brothers in arms.
Rated R for violence, some disturbing images and language. 119 minutes.
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