December 25, 2019

KYLE SMITH: Sam Mendes’ 1917: A Somber Journey into Hell.

That movie, the Peter Jackson documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, was meticulously, devastatingly real. 1917, by contrast, starts out convincing but comes to seem unforgivably contrived around the halfway mark, and by the end it asks us to suspend disbelief to such a degree that the effect is nearly absurd. I was reminded of Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, whose protagonist developed into a kind of Buster Keaton figure who miraculously bumbled his way through a storm of violence so focused that it seemed as if the Wehrmacht’s sole purpose was to kill this random citizen.

1917 is defined also by its surface contrivance: Sam Mendes has designed the film as a single take (followed, after a brief blackout in the second half, by another single take). Like Birdman, though, as well as the fantastically complicated opening scene of Mendes’s own James Bond film Spectre, 1917is actually composed of many shots ingeniously woven together using digital wizardry to look like a single take. I dislike the gimmick, at least at this length; staying on a single take creates a sense of hanging in midair as we wonder when we’ll finally hit the ground, and it works beautifully for a single scene like the opening of Spectre or Touch of Evil (1958), the Orson Welles film that inspired all subsequent one-take sorcery. Keeping a take going for an entire movie, though, is a mistake. It redirects the attention from the story to the technique. To be slightly rude about it, it makes Sam Mendes, not his characters, the star of the movie.

Read the whole thing, which is spoiler-free. Having just returned from a sold-out showing, I can vouch that it’s an intense ride, but it lacks the emotional catharsis that concludes Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 directorial breakthrough Paths of Glory, still the best fictional movie set in WWI, or Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, both films that 1917 takes its visual cues and story arc from. But if you’re interested in the topic and/or the simulated single-take directorial style (something Alfred Hitchcock attempted on a much smaller scale, but without today’s digital ability to stitch shots together in his underrated 1948 drawing room murder mystery Rope), it’s definitely worth seeing on the big screen.

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