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You’ll need to see ‘1917’ twice to appreciate both the camerawork and story

“1917” is such an impressive technical feat that it almost gets in the way of the movie.

Writer/director Sam Mendes has made a two-hour film that looks like one long continuous take. From the first frame to the last, the camera never takes a break, never jumps from one angle to another. And it’s not like the movie takes place in a relatively small space, which could make a sinuous tracking shot a little easier to pull off. “1917” covers miles and miles and miles of battleground as it follows two British soldiers on a mission across “no man’s land” in World War I.

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And not just above ground. It goes underground too, through endless swaths of trenches, their own and the enemy’s, and also down a rushing river and a plunge over a waterfall. At times, it feels like “showing off,” so ingenious is the camerawork.

That’s something of a problem, though. The more we’re aware of the camerawork, the more we’re taken out of the movie. The irony is that Mendes chose his “one-take” approach to better capture the immediacy of war and better immerse the audience in the experience of the front lines of World War I. For me, it had the opposite effect.

Inspired by tales Mendes heard from his grandfather who fought in World War I, the premise of the story is that two infantrymen must cross through enemy territory to deliver a message of grave importance to a faraway battalion.

“You have a brother in the Second Battalion.”
“Yessir. Is he alive?”
“And with your help, I’d like to keep it that way. But they’re walking into a trap. Your orders are to deliver a message calling off tomorrow morning’s attack. If you don’t, we will lose 1,600 men. Your brother among them.”

For the duration of the movie, we (and the all-important cameramen) follow the soldiers on their treacherous journey. All manner of disasters hit the men during their mission, one after another after another.

A number of the harrowing “incidents” that make up their trek struck me as a bit random or far-fetched. How else are you going to fill up two hours of screen time, I suppose? But at least all the narrow escapes keep the film from dragging.

Mendes clearly expects us to feel an emotional punch by movie’s end but that eluded me, primarily because I was distracted by all the fancy camerawork and because of the arbitrarily episodic nature of the story.

To double-check my criticisms, I watched the film a second time and found it a somewhat more satisfying experience. Because I had already seen them, I found the cinematographic tricks less distracting. And now knowing what to expect in the field of action, I was freed up to pay closer attention to the series of incidents that befall our heroes. What on first viewing seemed arbitrary and random, on second viewing turned out to be a little bit better set up and prepared for than I realized. The script not only repeats certain visual patterns, it also effectively uses foreshadowing. As a result, the film’s emotional resonance rings forth a bit stronger the second time through.

I don’t know if it’s fair to say you need to see a film twice to appreciate it, but it’s better than saying the opposite.

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