I’m a sucker for a well-executed gimmick, especially films meant to look like they’re filmed in one long shot. Children of Men and Birdman both come to mind as great examples of this style, but rarely have I seen an artistic gimmick so perfectly match its story as with Sam Mendes’ latest creation, 1917. To call it a gimmick is actually a disservice to the emotional weight that it carries in terms of getting the audience intimately familiar with what the characters are experiencing.
Besides the opening scene, which is meant to introduce the single-shot idea as well as the main characters and the relatively simple plot, most of the movie takes place in tight, restrained environments that put the camera directly in the midst of the action. The film does an amazing job of capturing your attention and not getting too caught up in its own brilliance to tell a good story. That is to say, the film’s gimmick is in service to the story, not the other way around (I’m looking at you, Hardcore Henry).
To be frank, I was surprised to like 1917 as much as I did. I knew exactly what to expect going in, yet found myself in awe of the technical marvel unraveling before my eyes rather than trying to catch every hidden cut out of boredom. For a story that is almost entirely “spoiled” in the synopsis of the film, Sam Mendes shows that excellent writing, likable characters, and believable conflict are more important to a good story than subverting the audience’s expectations.
1917 takes very little time in cluing the audience in on just how awful it was being a soldier in the First World War. Although the “good guys” win in the end, the stakes rapidly escalate as our protagonists slog through trenches and into bunkers, facing death at every turn. With the introduction of every new character, you begin to wonder just how much the protagonists can trust them and where their motives truly lay, even those in British uniforms. The tension ramps up to a grand crescendo that both fills you with joy and also rips your heart out from your chest and makes you stare at it. War is hell, alright?
Is this the most important war movie of all time? That’s not for me to say, especially given that I rarely watch war movies outside of the star variety, but I can say that it is easily the best movie I’ve seen so far this year and I’m excited to see it again. Will I be as caught up in the commotion and forget that I’m watching a movie or will the cracks start to show when I’m not spending half of the movie watching over the character’s shoulders for potential threats? That’s hard to say too. What isn’t hard to say, however, is that you owe it to yourself to see 1917 in theaters.