To help bedazzle the brown paper bag that was the last James Bond movie, 2015’s “Spectre,” director Sam Mendes constructed the illusion of a continuous take as 007 infiltrated a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City. The action moved up and down, weaved around buildings, and followed a few furious action beats with technical skill, creating one of the few highlights found in the picture. Taking the one-shot concept to the extreme, Mendes applies such concentration to “1917,” which follows the odyssey of two British soldiers crossing dangerous terrain in World War I.
Such cinematographic showmanship doesn’t really lend itself to cruel tales of military duty, but “1917” tries to respect War is Hell realism, even when it can’t pull off such sincerity. Mendes makes a striking film, but not a consistently enthralling one, finding the production’s gimmick occasionally throttling its pace and intensity.
In April of 1917, British soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) have been summoned to the camp of General Erinmore (Colin Firth). Pulled out of slumber in northern France to receive their orders, Blake and Schofield are stunned to learn of a German trap to ambush a battalion of 1,600 men, Blake’s brother included, with no way to immediately warn them of impending doom.
Tasked with crossing dangerous terrain in a day to deliver a warning, Blake and Schofield begin their mission, working their way through seemingly empty trenches, tunnels, and bombed-out towns with no one but each other to rely on. Along the way, dangers appear with regularity, pitting the soldiers against what remains of German forces, who won’t hesitate to kill the men, stopping them from preventing a colossal disaster and, for Blake, an unthinkable loss of life.
There’s a ticking clock that drives the action of “1917.” The picture commences with Blake and Schofield receiving special information concerning German plans to ambush the British battalion, ordered to race against time and share the horrific news with their contact on the other side. With communication lines cut, the two soldiers are the last hope for any type of prevention, pushed back into the trenches to begin their perilous mission.
While military urgency inspires the journey, for Blake, protection of his brother (and, by extension, his mother), is the prime reason to focus on results, though he remains anxious about the dangers ahead. Co-scripted by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, “1917” works through expositional needs during the first act, as there’s plenty of travel time for the young men, who march into the unknown on foot, trying to remain out of sight. There’s tension between the pair, but also a sense of purpose, in possession of information that could save an enormous amount of lives.
“1917” is laid out in real time, remaining with the soldiers as they work their way through obstacles, with initial trouble found inside an underground tunnel populated with rats who accidentally trigger booby traps. Blake and Schofield are hammered by a bomb, but they keep moving forward, and this observational experience is somewhat deflating, as much of the picture is devoted to walking, climbing, riding in a truck, and standing still.
Mendes hopes for a mesmeric visual event, aided by cinematography from Roger Deakins, but the one-take display tends to halt the flow of the feature, and the endeavor never quite comes together as a travelogue, lacking connective tissue between locations. Mendes commits in full to the gimmick, using old editing tricks and iffy CGI to piece together his shots into one grand movement of disaster. It’s arresting, but only in fits, with “1917” shutting down some when it isn’t dealing directly with tests of survival.
“1917” becomes more of a technical exercise as it unfolds, losing interest in emotionality, though a few scenes connect as intended, including a tender moment where Schofield discovers a French girl hiding with a baby in the ruins of her village. There’s no large-scale educational effort in play here, with Mendes more attentive to his tricks than assembling a harrowing understanding of sacrifice and loss.
It’s no “Saving Private Ryan,” as “1917” primarily exists on a cinematic level, with Mendes aiming to generate a marketplace event with his creeping terror. It’s impressively designed and executed, with a few shell-shocked performances and general feel for battlefield remoteness mixed with feats of incredible endurance. But it seldom rises above its laborious moviemaking endeavor, remaining detached as it doggedly pursues seamless camerawork.
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