1917

1917 ★★★½

A feature-length single shot (with invisible cuts) is the extended hook of 1917, a World War I film more useful as summoning an emotional experience than it is for breaking down the history of the war. When you have two corporals (Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay) that are tracked in "real time" to fulfill the mission, which is carry forth through enemy territory to get a message to 1st battalion to call off an attack that will certainly lead into an ambush, you expect one thing for narrative purposes: They ain't gonna die. At least not early. If they did die, what else is the camera going to track?

What director Roger Deakins, err, I mean director Sam Mendes, suffuses the picture with is not close calls to death, but real, percolating-in-every-breathing-moment fear. That quality is its best asset.

Cinematographer Deakins and Mendes run their camera as if it were "Full Metal Jacket" gone gaga, through trenches, through the muddy cadaver litter of no man's land, through farm land with dead cows, the rubble of blown apart cities that are now enemy hideouts — and through it all is the stink, the ostensible stink and filth, of a soldier's experience, one enveloped barbarically in that fear.

What the one-take technique doesn't allow for though is objective analysis of World War I. Dialogue has to be laced in when its characters are transitioning from one zone to another, and it's perfunctory even when Mendes and his other co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns try not to make it sound like filler.

But ultimately the film's one-shot gimmick is not immaculate. (SPOILER ALERT) The two characters are at a deserted farmland when at a distance they recognize a dogfight in the air; one plane gets hit and crashes towards the very place they are standing. Minutes later, they are met by two other characters, then some more... an entire regiment is standing on the other side of the wall. And my hands wailed and I uttered, or gasped in disbelief, "WHY??" When the plane hit the ground, you're to tell me thirty other men wouldn't have looked on the other side of the wall to see what was happening out of sheer curiosity? The only reason they aren't revealed right away is because of the cheap camera trick that Deakins and Mendes, err, really just Mendes, has locked himself into.

Still, 1917 is strongly recommended because there are too many better scenes that are just too remarkable to ignore. One of our heroes has to trek through an enemy occupied city that has been wrecked by warfare, diminished into rubble, and the light flares that are shot into the night sky like rockets illuminates everything in a cascade of moving shadows, and in that light, the rubble is like some kind of ironically gorgeous ancient ruins.

I don't know anything analytical-wise about what was going on in Northern France in World War I (because this isn't the kind of film that is going to tell you that), other than the British are trying to knock the Germans out of the land. But I was invested in watching these two particular British soldiers tirelessly try to break on through to the other side.

That Schofield kid, though? He has had concrete fall on him, he has tripped and fallen, he has dived for cover, and lots more in what is a marathon trek through a land smite by death — and he still runs mad like it was the very first hour even though it's like his twelfth hour. Ahh, that's far-fetched whatever, but I will say that last run over the trenches through a field of air bombs coming after the first wave, where there is a race against the clock to get to the General to relay a message that can save lives... well, that run is great cinema.

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