Ever since Alfred Hitchcock made 1948's Rope, a murder mystery edited to appear as if it had been shot in one take, filmmakers like Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman) and Mike Figgis (Timecode) have attempted to repeat or top that experiment by employing bigger setpieces or shooting an actual one-take film.
Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) is the latest acclaimed director to do the one take thing in the war drama, 1917.
Taking place in the midst of World War I, 1917 follows two young British corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), as they take on a new assignment that takes them across miles upon miles of enemy territory to deliver a message that will stop a deadly attack on hundreds of soldiers. Blake's own brother is one of those soldiers.
As of this moment, the film is garnering accolades and Golden Globes. The film's marketing campaign has placed a lot of emphasis on the Rope-esque approach. Mendes and the film's cinematographer, the infallible Roger Deakins, are able to put us right in Schofield and Blake's shoes. From frame one, we are propelled into explosions and hails of bullets, with slivers of light in all the mayhem.
It worked on the audience around me. The audience murmured when the soldiers came upon the dead bodies floating in a trench and chuckled when Blake shared a funny story. The woman beside me shifted uneasily in her seat throughout it all. When not looking at his fucking phone, the guy in front of me was audibly gasping. One couple was hugging as the credits rolled. Then again that may have had more to do with the two wine bottles they were holding than Mendes' movie.
While I wouldn't call it a "work of genius" like the guy in the seat behind me, I was definitely wowed and dazzled by the sets, the sound design, and 1917's overall technical prowess. In the first half, I felt an apprehensiveness that I usually only feel in a good horror movie. You never feel safe. I found my eyes darting around, paranoid for the two characters on screen ... almost the way you feel while watching your best friend play (your favorite video game here). Therein lies the problem. Our protagonists are little more than avatars.
I'm not trying to sound like a stereotypical contrarian asshat critic that scoffs at the state of cinema but, I'm about to scoff.
While that first half is pretty engrossing, I found myself mentally leaving the movie not long after and thinking about the technique so much that it overshadowed whatever drama was unfolding on the screen. And then I started thinking about two very different films I liked that use the one-take approach, Hardcore Henry and Victoria. Hardcore Henry is a wonderfully obnoxious VR trip filled with GoPro-rigged explosions, viscera, and stunts while Victoria is more of a languidly paced film following flawed but likable characters making stupid choices that put them in jeopardy. You could say that 1917 is a composite using both Hardcore Henry's gamer style and Victoria's drama.
The testament to how good a one-take movie is if they wrap you up into it so much that you barely think about the acrobatics the director, cast and crew had to employ to pull it all together. While watching Victoria, I worried about the characters. During Hardcore Henry, I grinned as the movie submerged me in all its nuttiness. I never thought, "How'd they do that?" while watching them. I did while watching 1917.
And, yes, 1917 is an astounding technical achievement but it could have been an astounding narrative achievement with well-rounded characters as well. You can create tension and employ nifty tricks without overshadowing the story and its people. Case in point, The Safdie Brothers' Uncut Gems is a movie that ratchets up tension akin to 1917 and submerges us in their world thanks to the shrieking performances, the gritty photography, the jarring edits, and the dissonant soundtrack.
Not until a few minutes after leaving the theater, did I think about any of those things. It never felt like it was signalling me, the audience member, to think more about the directors or where the edits were made or the on set choreography of the actors and the camera following them. Even though I'm saying all this, I'm not saying I didn't like 1917. This movie is truly an event. It's one I'd gladly drag friends to see in a theater since they won't get the same experience at home. This movie was good, but considering the talent involved, it could have been great.