In “1917,” Dean-Charles Chapman (left) and George MacKay play British World War I soldiers on an extremely perilous mission in No Man’s Land. (Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)

In “1917,” Dean-Charles Chapman (left) and George MacKay play British World War I soldiers on an extremely perilous mission in No Man’s Land. (Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)

‘1917’ uses technical bravura to get our pulses pounding

Director Sam Mendes filmed this story, about two WWI soldiers on a perilous mission, in two unbroken shots.

Hollywood has been wringing its hands over how to get people into theaters in the age of streaming. “1917” offers a clue.

Part technical stunt, part mission movie, “1917” is nothing if not a spectacle best witnessed on a big screen. On Sunday it won Golden Globe awards for Best Drama and Best Director, and while the Globes are intrinsically silly, the wins do suggest an appetite for a kind of old-fashioned moviegoing experience, albeit one that could not have been made before the digital era.

We’ll get to the technical part later. First, the story: It’s World War I, and two young British corporals receive a delicate, time-sensitive mission. If they don’t deliver a crucial message to an advance unit, hundreds of British soldiers will be massacred in a German counterattack.

The soldiers are Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, a onetime “Game of Thrones” regular). For the latter, the assignment is personal, as well as critical: His brother is in the unit about to be led into slaughter.

They must cross the desolation of no man’s land — a fetid stew of corpses and booby traps — in order to deliver the message. They have until dawn.

This story should be effective even if executed in a straightforward way. But Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes, who made “American Beauty” and the last couple of James Bond films, has a battle plan for this tale.

Working with the all-universe cinematographer Roger Deakins, Mendes has staged “1917” so that the action appears to be unfolding in two long, unbroken shots. (There’s a very specific interlude at about the two-thirds mark.) The camera glides behind, in front of and alongside our heroes as they cover ground, while digital technology masks the edits.

Yet this isn’t exactly “real time.” Mendes is doing something interesting with the way time (and distance) passes. The mission must take well over the two hours of screen time to achieve their goal, even with the one gap, so our brains adjust accordingly. The fog of war messes with how we experience time going by.

The whole thing is a fascinating movie-watching experiment, although it’s legitimate to ask why “1917” had to be filmed this way. The technique does give us a sense of the dreary slog at the front lines, although at times there’s something mechanical about the effects and the series of death-defying coincidences that unfold like clockwork.

The suspense is undeniable — it’s like watching a silent movie where the heroine is tied to the railroad tracks and the train is chugging away in the distance. Your pulse will pound, even if you’re aware of the manipulations.

Mendes chose well in casting his little-known lead actors. Chapman conveys a cheerful, determined chap, optimistic by nature, while the scarecrow-shaped MacKay is more skeptical, his narrow eyes prepared for the worst.

A few name actors flash by in brief turns along the way: Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong. As a cynical officer who sends our duo out of the trenches and into No Man’s Land, Andrew Scott (“Fleabag”) gives a brilliant demonstration of how a two-minute performance can leave an indelible impression.

His character is the closest the movie comes to suggesting the absurdity of war itself; you have to go back to a different era (Stanley Kubrick’s unforgettable WWI film “Paths of Glory,” for instance) for that. The characters here do not reason why — they simply do, and sometimes die.

“1917” (3 stars)

Sam Mendes directs this World War I suspense film as though it were unfolding in two long, unbroken shots — a technical marvel that sometimes overshadows the story itself. We follow two British soldiers (George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman) as they move through a pulse-pounding mission across No Man’s Land.

Rating: R, for violence

Opening Friday: Alderwood, Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place Stadium, Woodinville, Oak Harbor Plaza

Talk to us

More in Life

The hardy fuchsia “Voltaire” is one the few fuchsias that can take full sun all day. (Nicole Phillips)
Eight perennials to add to the garden for summer-long enjoyment

July is a great time to fill in those blank spots with long-blooming perennials. (Yes, it is OK to plant in the summer.)

Kate Jaeger played Gretl and Kevin Vortmann was Hansel in Village Theatre’s “Hansel Gretl Heidi Günter,” which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tracy Martin / Village Theatre)
COVID-19 curtain drops on a Village Theatre original musical

The lead actor in the canceled show says his disappointment pales next to that of the 10 young actors who were cast in the production.

PUD program now helps 10% more customers pay their bills

Changes to the PUD’s Income Qualified Assistance Program ensure more people will get the help they need.

Museum invites you to add your colors to vintage Northwest art

The Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds creates a project where people can color woodblock prints. The results will be displayed in the museum’s windows.

A deservedly affectionate portrait of a civil rights icon

“John Lewis: Good Trouble” traces the life and work of a truly towering figure in American history.

Why more men aren’t wearing masks — and how to change that

The four-pronged M.A.S.K. Approach just might convince mask-averse males to do the right thing.

How to confront the disease epedimic in the COVID-19 pandemic

Good health empowers us to cope better and feel better, in mind and body, during turbulent times.

Working toward Phase 3 of a Safe Start for Snohomish County

Public Health Essentials! A blog by the Snohomish Health District.

Hosta ‘Krossa Regal’ has blue foliage from late spring through early fall. In summer, tall flower spikes bear lavender blooms. (Richie Steffen)
Great Plant Pick: Hosta ‘Krossa Regal’ aka ‘Ginba Giboshi’

This hosta has blue foliage from late spring through early fall. In summer, tall flower spikes bear lavender blooms.

Most Read