When it comes to impressive achievements in filmmaking, “1917” deserves to be near the top of the conversation. This war film, which unfolds in two hours of real time, is shot to appear as one continuous take. Thankfully, it is so much more than just a technical gimmick. The showiness eases up as the emotional weight of the story unfolds, but it’s still hard not to get stuck on the challenges and manner of the moviemaking rather than the characters that should be the focal point of the film.
Set during the First World War, the story follows Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), two young British soldiers who are given a seemingly impossible mission: deliver a message across hostile territory to the front lines. In a race against time, these men must deliver the information within a couple of hours if they want to stop 1,600 men, and one of the soldiers’ brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.
The plot is thin, and the characters even more so. Instead of learning more about Schofield and Blake, the showy filmmaking technique commands the spotlight over learning more interesting aspects of these soldiers. It’s more of an experiment in “look what I can do!” rather than compelling storytelling. The camera becomes more of a character than the actual characters.
Does this matter? Not really. Roger Deakins is a master cinematographer, and his technique here creates a fully immersive experience. Paired with director Sam Mendes, the two capture the trench warfare of WWI with clever camerawork that not only gives a real sense of the distance these men had to travel, but makes you feel trapped alongside them as fellow soldiers sharing the same journey. The intimate style of camerawork makes you feel as if you are right there in the trenches, on the battlefield, with these two young men. Since the film is made to feel like it was shot in real time, it becomes a psychological wartime thriller as time begins to run out.
“1917” is a large scale spectacle that often overshadows its small scale story, but there’s no disputing that it is a grand achievement in filmmaking.