As a pretentious film fan, I love long unbroken takes. Since Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, the notion of making a film with only one continuous take has been a challenge that only few directors have attempted. Russian Ark comes to mind, but since no one has seen that and it didn’t launch a cinematic fad we have to go to Birdman for it.
Birdman wasn’t filmed in one take, it just looks like it; and isn’t that just cinema defined? We know that what we are watching is a fiction, but now the way it is communicated to us is fiction too. Except that wasn’t the best part of Birdman; it was just part of a very satisfying whole. I don’t know if 1917 has achieved the same thing.
Directed by Sam Mendes, with cinematography from Roger Deakins (trust me, that matters), 1917 sees two English soldiers sent on a mission to breach enemy lines in order to call off an offensive that is really a trap set by the Germans, all in one fictionally unbroken shot. It’s a staggering achievement, a truly rewarding watch in which you feel like you are right behind the two soldiers every step of the way. The stakes are high, the pacing going from head-blastingly intense to contemplative and back again without showing the joins. It’s well-acted, gracefully shoot, and really quite powerful at times.
Here’s the rub: I don’t think 1917 would be half as good without the one long take gimmick, because that’s what it is. Now, I realise that it’s a bit redundant to criticize a film because of the way it was made, but I really doubt that 1917 would have half the hype, or indeed the bagful of awards nominations, without it. The story itself, while well-told, isn’t anything that we haven’t seen a hundred times before, and the characters have the same problems. My theory is that this would have sunk without the director’s novel approach to the material. That may sound harsh – but think of Dunkirk. Dunkirk used every trick in the book to make a classic war film, but without that distracting central gimmick, it feels like a fuller cinematic experience.
Then I began to unpick that gimmick. 1917 is great in the cinema, but the doubts started to pop up right away. While the one take is a cool way to tell a story, and the very thing that will define 1917’s place among classic war films, anyone who has ever played a first person shooter game will find this all too familiar. There is a distinct game feel to 1917, down to the safe cut scenes where famous British actors help or detain the leads – by the time the credits rolled, I swear I had just watched a Call of Duty playthrough.
That’s the problem with this film. I think that it’s a great one for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned but I also think that it’s biggest strength is also its biggest flaw. Go and see it in the cinema, you’ll have a great time, but don’t expect to think much about it once you’re back home. Roger Deakisn deserves another Oscar though – he’s still the greatest cinematographer we have working today, and his skill alone should be enough to get your ass in seat.
Welcome to Oscar Season! Over the next few weeks, we’ll be covering all the Best Picture nominees here on No But Listen. Catch up on our previous coverageright here, and weigh in with your opinions on the nominations below!
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via Variety)