One perfect shot… for 119 minutes.
When Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is tasked with selecting a buddy and reporting to General Erinmore (Colin Firth), he chooses Schofield (George MacKay), thinking it some kind of simple throwaway errand. Unfortunately for them, sixteen hundred men many miles away have orders to push forward against a German line on the following morning, believing the enemy is on the run… except it’s a trap, a strategic withdraw months in the planning and calculated to lure them in. If Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) isn’t warned in time and the attack isn’t stopped, the soldiers are doomed — Blake’s brother among them.
Watching the trailer for this World War I vehicle gives you the sense of being there, and not in a good way. It looks wet and dirty, like viewers can feel their socks soaking up muddy water and the heat of flame against their faces. What seems to be lacking is the usual narrative; what is the film about? At some point or another, characters usually slow down for a moment of contemplation, decision, or some kind of moment to cut away. Yet it all seems quite compelling, luring audiences like a great secret being kept. Is it all just clever marketing, or is director Sam Mendes about to unleash something truly unique?
In the opening frame, viewers may be lulled into a false sense of security by a long pullback, a continuous shot similar war epics have used as an establishing point in past films. After ten minutes of following two men down an occupied trench into no man’s land, it abruptly dawns upon you: this isn’t a gimmick — it’s the entire damn movie, a two-hour no-cutaway immersion into war. There is a single respite that provides no comfort at all, merely upping the ante as time keeps slipping away. The effect will be lost upon home viewers with access to a pause button; the theater was how this was meant to be seen: no stopping, no respite, and no escape.
Imagine being dragged like a disembodied spirit through someone else’s worst moments of their life, unable to act and only endure. It’ll be hard to argue any other 2019 film more worthy of best editing recognition, because the transitions are nearly invisible, even if you’re really looking. The experience is so visceral that it simulates virtual reality even in two dimensions; there are multiple times the audience wouldn’t be surprised if the characters turned to them and asked for help. That never happens, of course, but that’s how real it feels, sucking you in until the safety of reality is fleeting.
Special mention goes to Mark Strong’s stoic Captain Smith along with the rest of the too-brief all-star leadership appearances, but the film isn’t carried solely upon the shoulders of our brave heroes. Rather, it’s the planning and cinematography taking center stage, a stream of Steadicam shots edited to perfect effect that wraps around to sweet release on the other side. Don’t be surprised if the next found-footage film or war epic steals this concept outright, but it’s hard to imagine it being put to better use than this… for now.
1917 is rated R for violence, some disturbing images, language, and no time to lose.
Four skull recommendation out of four
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