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"1917" Review

The sales pitch and gimmick for Sam Mendes' WWI epic 1917 is very simple: Two British soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are dispatched to warn a battalion preparing to launch an assault upon retreating German forces, but aerial photos have determined it's a trap sure to result in annihilation for them. The pair must cross No Man's Land and reach the force, which includes one of their brothers, by dawn tomorrow or all will be lost.

The gimmick? The entire movie is filmed to appear to be a single shot like was done with 2014's Best Picture Birdman. While there are tricks used to hide the cuts and a time jump, it's meant to feel like a real-time march across the hellscape of France during The Great War.

While co-writer/director Sam Mendes hypes the gimmick as being critical to the storytelling, it's not. No one watched Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan and wished they got to spend all the time sailing/walking to the next action set piece listening to the characters have banal discussions to fill the time.

An unfair knock on the hurried plot of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was to compare it to videogame fetch quests (i.e. go to a place, get a thing, use it to go the the next place and thing, rinse, repeat), but in reality 1917's structure is more like a videogame due to its one-shot conceit. I'm currently playing Gears 5 (of the Gears of War Xbox series) and since the player never leaves their avatar and sidekick as they guide them from battle to battle, fetch quest location and back, the intervening time is filled with the characters discussing what they're doing and how it relates to the overarching narrative.

The difference is that in the game, the dialog is painting a canvas detailing the plot and world beyond what you're doing; in the movie, it's just uninteresting chatter to keep it from being a silent film. Writing this now, I can't remember a single thing the soldiers said to each other or anything about them as people.

To contrast, in Pulp Fiction, our introduction to Jules and Vincent as they drove to the apartment was entirely superfluous. It's two gangsters on their way to do gangster stuff and could've begun with their knocking at the door, but instead we got to meet them and gain a feel for their personalities as they chatted about what a Quarter Pounder is called in France and foot massages. And we remember the so-quotable dialog a quarter-century later.

While the characters are ciphers and the gimmick is only necessary as a means to pump up the hype, 1917 is still a tremendous technical feat. The verisimilitude of the trenches and battlefields is impressive and Roger Deakins should win a second consecutive Oscar for his cinematography, if only for one sequence set at night, lit the glow of blazing buildings and glaring flares flying overhead. Mendes stages everything well and the tension is palpable when it needs to be.

But these are details that spark the filmmaking nerd in me, not elevate the tale told. It's like watching a band of wildly talented musicians playing the hell out of banal pop song. You can appreciate the chops on display, but when it's over, you can't hum the tune. There are far better movies about war - that reminds me, with the passing of Kirk Douglas, I really should open my Criterion Blu-ray of Paths of Glory and watch Kubrick's take on the Great War - which are told cinematically without the shackles of a neat, but unneeded, gimmick.

Score: 7/10. Rent the Blu-ray.

There's something really ironic about a trailer for a one-shot movie using EDITING to create excitement.


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