By Noah Gittell
The history of cinema is filled with tricks and gimmicks, but none more pernicious than the one-take movie. First attempted by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1948 film “Rope,” the one-take movie is a lie, both literally and spiritually. These films give the appearance of having been shot in one, interrupted take, but there are usually multiple edits, hidden in shadows or fast camera movements that make the images unintelligible. More importantly, the purpose of the one-take movie – to fully immerse us in the world of the film – never comes to fruition. Instead of cradling the viewer in their suspension of disbelief, the gimmick draws attention to the artifice of film, refusing our engagement and pushing us away from the reality of the film.
Nowhere is the trick more egregious than in “1917,” a technical marvel of a film that nearly loses its soul in its arbitrary commitment to a single take. The Golden Globe-winning film by director/co-writer Sam Mendes (“Skyfall,” “American Beauty”) follows Blake and Scofield, two British grunts who, in the waning days of World War I, are tasked with getting an urgent message to the commander, who is unwittingly about to send his troops into a massacre. When I say “follows,” that’s what I mean. The camera, helmed expertly by cinematographer Roger Deakins, mostly stays behind the two boys as they traverse the French countryside, turning “1917” into a glorified first-person shooter video game.
There are, however, a few extended stretches where this approach works marvelously. A scene in which our heroes must escape from a crumbling German bunker is thrilling, and a final sequence that features one soldier pushing through the entire length of a half-mile trench in real time, with thousands of lives hanging in the balance, shows that a long take, properly employed, can build tension and create a meaningful sense of scale.
But applied too liberally, the long take is a hindrance, filling the screen with useless images. Consider the key moment when the two soldiers encounter an injured German pilot. We track with Scofield as he runs off to get him water, and when he looks back, the German has attacked Blake. The camera shows us Scofield’s reaction first, then whizzes back to Blake and the German engaged in combat. In a case like this, a simple cut from Scofield’s face to what he sees would do perfectly, but instead, Mendes has forced himself to show us lots of needless information in between: a field, a barn, and the horizon beyond it. It only flashes in front of us for a moment, but it’s wasted screentime, and these dead zones add up.
“1917” is worth a visit for its moments that work. The bleak horrors and small human redemptions of wartime shine through, despite all efforts from the filmmakers to quash them. Still, it remains a frustrating experience because its failures are just so unnecessary. The essence of cinema is the cut, when the thoughtful juxtaposition of two images transports can create a well of indescribably deep feelings. Why the minds behind “1917” would want to rob themselves of this tool is a mystery. That the film succeeds at all is a case of victory being snatched from the jaws of a self-inflicted defeat.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue