You know that short animated film/video/thing that Regal Cinemas often play after the trailers but before the main feature? Some of them resemble roller coasters, as if shot from the point of view of the person riding in the front seat. You ride the tracks through twists and turns in an impossible space, with popcorn popping in the air and Coke flowing down waterfalls. The idea, I think, is to tell you to buckle up, because you're about to take a trip into MovieLand. In other words, you're not just watching a movie, you're experiencing one.
When that short little ditty came on screen prior to watching—sorry, experiencing—Sam Mendes's new World War I film1917, I thought to myself, "How perfect: an opening-act metaphor for the first-person shooter movie I'm about to watch." You see, I'd been told before seeing 1917 that it was shot like a first-person shooter video game. (It isn't.) Nothing against first-person video games, but the only time I saw a movie that was shot in that format, it was a terrible experience. The movie was called Hardcore Henry, and it ostensibly replicated the effect of playing a FPS by (almost) never breaking with the visual perspective of the protagonist. Maybe that could be (or has been) done well, but Hardcore Henry didn't cut it for me...or for most audiences (see below).
But, what about 1917? I'll put it right out there: as someone who spent years researching and writing about long takes (you know, those shots that seem to last forever), 1917 is probably my favorite example of an ultra-long-take film. And I should define that last, ultra-hyphenated term. When I was studying long takes, I quickly learned that "long takes" are relative. There are no existing parameters for what constitutes a long take. In some movies, a shot lasting 30 seconds is pretty long. In others, you have shots lasting upwards of 10 minutes (sometimes more!). Then there's that special category of films that create—or at least create the impression of—extremely long takes, shots that last either the duration of the movie or press at the limits of what's physically possible. So, 1917 qualifies as an "ultra-long-take film," since there is only one occasion (that I noticed) when an edit is discernible and not hidden.
Hidden edits have long been a hallmark of movies with long takes. Probably the oldest example that's also well-known is Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, a movie with such a rich mythology that lots of people falsely describe it either as a single-shot film or a film with no visible edits. For different reasons I won't get into, both of those descriptions would essentially have been impossible back in 1948. Some of the edits in Rope are "hidden" (although contemporary audiences won't have too much trouble spotting them), but others are not. 1917 takes at least one lesson from Hitchcock by knowing when to break from the single-shot conceit and let a traditional cut do what it does best. I won't spoil the moment by naming it.
One problem routinely plagues ultra-long-take movies, a problem to which 1917 does not fall prey. That problem revolves around compositions and choreography. Bear with me for a sec. If you're committed to the longest-lasting camera shot possible, if that's really your goal, then you're arguably saying that creating the perfect image comes second. And if you can't/won't cut to a different shot, then you've got to live with whatever shots you can get by moving the camera or moving the characters (or, sometimes, moving the actual scenery). I've seen too many really long takes with lousy framing, because good long takes are quite hard to execute while getting everything else right, too. This is where 1917 shines: I can't recall a single moment during the film when I thought that the image had been subjugated to the long take. On the contrary, I was blown away by how strikingly every image was framed, how every shot looked just right, and especially how hard it must have been for the filmmakers to choreograph that restless Steadicam to ensure that the camera operator always knew exactly where to go and where to point the lens. Credit to cinematographer Roger Deakins, in addition to Mendes and the rest of the camera crew. Incidentally, credit also to the editor, Lee Smith, who helpfully articulates in this interview the many challenges facing an editor in a film like 1917.
Part of me hates to go on and on about the long takes in 1917, because, the fact is, there's a lot more to the film than that. The story that's told, as some have observed, is partially reminiscent of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Veterans of last semester's Film and Social Issues course here at APU may also catch references to Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now (a side character even shares a name with Robert Duvall's Colonel Kilgore). And several moments pay homage to Jean Renoir's 1937 WWI film Grand Illusion, which was Orson Welles's favorite movie. But the film's references to its forebears are subtle, and its confidence in its own story and style are strong. Rightly so. It's true what some are saying: in a moment dominated by franchise properties and sequels galore, 1917 is a breath of fresh air, an opportunity to see and experience a film with no prequels and no sequels and no pre-existing content, aside from history books.
Don't be fooled: 1917 is definitely a big-budget Hollywood movie with that visual sheen characteristic of studio productions. But, against its war-is-hell backdrop, the film tells an impactful story of human beings navigating that hellscape without moralizing or politicizing. At its best, this is what Hollywood does, earning 1917 the right to be the Oscar bait that it is.