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The film 1917 tells the story of two young men in the British army given a nearly impossible task during World War I: They are asked to leave the British trenches, cross over into no man’s land and eventually into German territory to deliver an essential message to stop another British troop from walking into a trap.
Immediately upon receiving their orders, the young men set off to fulfill their duty, and audiences stick with them every step of the way. The film employs the same technique that Birdman employed back in 2014 by making the movie look like one long continuous take. 1917’s cinematographer, the iconic Roger Deakins, who also filmed Blade Runner 2049, The Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men and more, really becomes the star of the movie with his jaw-dropping cinematography. When the one-take approach was taken with Birdman, I found it to be gimmicky because it didn’t serve much of a purpose to me. That movie takes place over the course of days, and so the camera would sit still in a hallway for periods of time while the characters were sleeping, which, to me, defeated the entire purpose of the approach.
By contrast, 1917 makes the technique feel vital. In a war setting, not getting a break or additional perspective from aerial shots makes the whole thing feel that much more immersive. Moments like when, early on, our two young protagonists first leave the comfort of their own trenches and step into no man’s land are given added emotional wallop from the fact that we, the audience, feel like the third member of their little troupe. The technique really shines in one of the film’s most essential shots, a moment that is shown in all the trailers, when legions of soldiers are running one way and one of the film’s protagonists is running another, his urgent mission not to engage the enemy and fight, but to simply survive long enough to find the men in charge to deliver his message.
1917 joins Dunkirk as war movies that focus on acts of courage beyond just battle-valor. In Dunkirk, thousands of pleasure boat captains took their own boats into a war zone to rescue countless young men fighting their hardest to outlast their enemies. In 1917, two young soldiers take on a mission to save thousands of their fellow soldiers, but must put their own lives in danger in the attempt. In both films, audiences are left with the feeling that war is hell and must be avoided, but without either movie ever needing to show audiences much violence or gore.
1917 is a masterclass in cinematography and tension, and it’s now playing in theaters.
I’m Evan Rook.