A “cut” is an elementary filmmaking term that refers to the point at which one shot ends and another begins. The camera “cuts,” and suddenly we’re looking at another angle, another scene or another perspective. It’s a basic tool of editing, an essential aspect in the construction of a film.
Or maybe it isn’t. After “Birdman” elaborately and impressively “hid” its cuts and took home the Best Picture Oscar in 2015, there’s been a trend of filmmakers operating under the assumption that the fewer the cuts, the better the movie (in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit to not just liking, but loving “Birdman”). And so these days, long-takes are a dime-a-dozen. “Creed” featured an excellent single-take boxing match. “Game Night” had a faux-long take. Television shows “Mr. Robot” and “The Haunting of Hill House” both staged installments meant to look like a single shot. If, for some reason, you hate it when the camera cuts, you’re in luck—though I can’t think of a more boring way to judge a film.
The problem is that long-takes alone do not a good movie make. The filmmaker still must justify why they’re telling a certain story, and why their decisions behind the camera strengthen the delivery of said story. Here lies the problem with Sam Mendes’ “1917”, with its bare-bones narrative told in what looks like one continuous shot. Without the help of an establishing frame, we’re plunked into the trenches of World War I, in the perspective of British soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), who are tasked with crossing the German line to deliver orders, preventing a disastrous attack.
With the camera trailing over the shoulders of these boys, “1917” initially feels like a third-person video game—only, somebody else has the controller. Or perhaps the film is closer to a theme-park ride, as you, the viewer, are ferried through abandoned bunkers and barbed wire fences, to bombed-out towns and other, nearly identical trenches.
Unfortunately, when “1917” isn’t aggressively trying to thrill you, it’s actually oddly boring. The characters lack substance—that might be the point, that they’re just average soldiers in the midst of a larger-than-life conflict, but one can’t help but wish the camera was stuck to some folks with a bit more charisma. And buckle up for lots of walking. Take the moment when Schofield and Blake spot a seemingly-vacant barn in the distance—in any other movie (and yes, some version of this scene is in practically every other war movie), we’d just cut to the soldiers investigating the location. But because “1917” is all “one take,” we have to watch these guys trek all the way down to the barn before anything else can happen. Scintillating!
Mendes, who helmed the last two James Bond movies, has brought along legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins for his exercise in virtuosity—ironically, that same virtuosity holds “1917” back from anything resembling greatness. Because nothing lies beneath the “breathtaking” cinematography—Mendes doesn’t have much to say about war or nation or the First World War—his grand experiment becomes a smoke-screen for a lack of thematic coherence. Furthermore, by saddling Deakins with these long-takes, Mendes’ collaborator can’t actually compose any images, as his camera must constantly be in motion to literally move the plot forward.
Then again, there are moments when “1917” spurts to life. It’s fun when the Hot Priest from “Fleabag” shows up. There’s a sequence involving a trip-wire and a rat that’s genuinely tense, as is the last stretch. The scenes that take place at night occasionally possess an intoxicating, surreal quality, before they swerve back into feeling like an imitation of a video game. Wouldn’t it be nice if a simple, formal choice could automatically produce a good movie? Alas, “1917” doesn’t make the cut.