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

Washington’s most beloved state park turns 100

Deception Pass State Park, which draws as many visitors as the best-known national parks in the U.S., celebrates a century of recreation and conservation

Kid 'n Play members Christopher "Kid" Reid, left, and Christopher "Play" Martin perform on NBC's "Today" show during the "I Love The 90's" morning concert at Rockefeller Plaza on Friday, April 29, 2016, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Relive the music of the 1990s with Kid N Play and other stars of the era at the Tulalip Casino Amphitheater.

Contestant chef Brian Madayag (left) of Edmonds and West Coast team captain Brooke Williamson on “Beachside Brawl.” (Food Network) 20220616
Edmonds chef reps Pacific Northwest on new Food Network show

Barkada owner Brian Madayaga will compete on a new Food Network series that premiers Sunday.

After two years of wellness, Covid finally hit this family, but thanks to vaccinations, the symptoms were mild. (Jennifer Bardsley)
Jennifer Bardsley’s fighting COVID-19 with vaccines and TLC

But even with vaccinations, the disease is scary for people like her with less than robust immune systems.

Turkey vultures’ pervious nostrils are among the features that help them feed on carrion. (The Columbian files)
In praise of turkey vultures, nature’s cleaning service

These raptors should be revered, not reviled, for their disposal of stinky, disease-laden animal matter.

close-up of gardener's hands planting a tomato seedling in the vegetable garden
This summer, it’s smart to go big or go home at the nursery

When buying annuals, vegetables or perennials, go for the 1-gallon pots. And don’t skimp on the soil amendments and plant food.

Writing on Belfast's Peace Wall.
Rick Steves’ Europe: Europe tears down walls — and builds bridges

The walls of antiquity — and of the Cold War — were symbols not of strength, but of mistrust and insecurity.

Coming home for the summer: Your college student and you

It can be tough going and conflicts will arise, but don’t worry, parents — they’ll be back in school soon.

He booked his JetBlue tickets on Orbitz. Now they’re gone

When Benjamin Eckstein shows up at the airport for his flight from Boston to San Jose, his airline says he doesn’t have a ticket. Whose fault is this mess, and how does he clean it up?

Musicians Rod Argent, left, Hugh Grundy, Chris White, and Colin Blunstone of The Zombies attends the 2019 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Barclays Center on Friday, March 29, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Get your tickets now to see rock Hall of Famers The Zombies in Everett. Plus there’s a month of music planned in Langley.

Celebrate national pollination week

This year, the week of June 20-26 is National Pollination Week and… Continue reading

The GPP for this Friday is Clematis 'Rooguchi' and the image credit goes to Richie Steffen.
Great Plant Pick: Clematis ‘Rooguchi’

This charming, non-twining vine is ideal for tight situations, and does well in a container.