‘1917’ Exit Survey: Is It More Than Its Shooting Style?
Just about every voting body loves 1917. With big wins at the Golden Globes, the PGAs, and ten nominations from the Academy, Sam Mendes’ film is poised to exit the awards season as the big winner. But is it worthy of the acclaim? Is its one-take shooting style anything other than “cool”? Where does it rank among this year’s Best Picture nominees?
Members of the MovieBabble staff break down some of the more noteworthy parts of the film in our 1917 Exit Survey.
Describe your overall enjoyment of the film with an appropriate GIF.
What’s your favorite work by Roger Deakins as a cinematographer? Where does 1917 rank among his work?
Ashvin Sivakumar: That’s a hard one considering how accomplished his filmography is. It would probably be a tie between the haziness of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and the sharp, critical lighting and color of Blade Runner 2049. I think 1917 is certainly up there, tied with those two films. His work is flooring and intricate.
James Titchmarsh: I haven’t seen a lot of what people consider Deakins’ best work but of what I have seen, my favorite easily has to be Blade Runner 2049. 1917 is also very high, probably ranking second or third for me.
Brennan Dubé: Skyfall and Sicario. 1917 is an absolute achievement and he’s just showing off now!
Callum Britter: Damn, this guy’s career is prolific. I know it’s basically a meme at this point but the beauty of Blade Runner 2049 is undeniable and (hot take incoming) considering it’s one of the only things going for it, it counts for a lot. Having said that, 1917 is absolutely gorgeous and several shots had me thinking ‘that would make a fantastic poster if it actually conveyed anything about the film’.
Sean Coates: That’s like asking to choose a favorite child. The Midas Touch of Deakins elevates whatever project he is working on and there is still so much I have not seen that he shot. For now, it would be a tie between Blade Runner 2049 and Skyfall, but 1917 is up there.
Nick Kush: Skyfall‘s cinematography is absolutely breathtaking, with my favorite piece of it being how Deakins choose to shoot the climax in the dark with the burning house being the only source of light. The same goes for 1917 as George MacKay’s Schofield runs through the bombed-out village as firey explosions rained down all around him. Although I’m not very fond of 1917, Deakins’ cinematography is certainly among his best work. You could also throw any of his work with the Coens up there as well.
Ashvin Sivakumar: There are a few that stand out, but my favorite, by far, has to be The Night Window sequence, once MacKay wakes up after falling down the stairs. The combination of Deakins’ cinematography and Newman’s score makes this such an immaculately crafted scene. Deakins’ lighting of the entire night through the harsh fire of a burning church in the horizon that lights up the town, along with the lingering effect of flares being shot into the sky that casts a moving shadow of the town, mixed with Newman’s overwhelming awing score that perfectly synchronizes with MacKay’s movements as he runs through the town, creates for an exceptionally masterful and intricate scene, that simply floors me every single time. The Sixteen-Hundred Men sequence, where MacKay runs on the battlefront as soldiers start their attacks, running towards the German front line, is another scene that is wonderfully filmed and executed. It is a masterful film.
James Titchmarsh: The best moment of the film for me would have to be either the night sequence in the town or the sequence in the trench in the third act, the former being a transcendent, almost religious experience and the latter being a hugely emotional finale. Both of these sequences feature brilliant work from Deakins and the night sequence is underscored by my favorite track in the whole film.
Brennan Dubé: I love the sequence in the German tunnel near the beginning — everything with the RAT is tension at its finest.
Callum Britter: That goddamn trench run. The moment the whole film was building up to and it delivered in no short measure. Only once before have I felt so overwhelmed, both visually and emotionally, that I was moved to tears by the sheer awe-inspiring spectacle of it all.
Sean Coates: The sequence of Schofield and Blake traversing the swampy, corpse-ridden hell of No Man’s Land and the subsequent sequence in the abandoned German trenches were the high points for me.
Nick Kush: THAT DAMN RAT! The escape sequence that ensued is one of the few moments of genuine tension in a film that is so manicured and contrived. It was the one moment where the Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay were reacting instead of carefully recalling their pre-planned steps.
Ashvin Sivakumar: I don’t really think there was a “worst” moment per se, considering how well the film was made.
James Titchmarsh: There was never a bad moment. Every moment had me interested and engaged for the entire runtime and the whole film just sort of blends together into one ginormous escapade.
Brennan Dubé: Meh, some of the dialogue was quite bland and forgettable. Easily my biggest gripe with the film.
Callum Britter: I don’t have much negative to say about 1917 but the scene in the blitzed town of Ecoust was particularly immersion breaking, specifically because of the number of bullets fired on Schofield during his escape and the chances that the German soldiers had to just aim and fire for a guaranteed hit were bloody numerous. I’m not normally one to complain about plot armor but damn, could he not have run in such a straight line?
Sean Coates: The moment of the German soldier with a rifle charging and firing at Schofield seems like a moment of overreaching to make the “one-shot” style more exciting and not realizing how impractical that would be in that situation. But that’s a small, technical gripe where maintaining the intensity prevails over logic that I can look past.
Nick Kush: Chekhov’s milk was an eye-rolling endeavor. The film painstakingly focuses on it as Schofield pours it into his canteen as if to say “hey, remember this for later!” I certainly remembered it, and I sunk into my chair when the time came to give it to the one woman and child still left in the village.
What greater purpose does the one-shot gimmick have? Does it add deeper meaning to the movie?
Ashvin Sivakumar: I think it adds a sort of continuity and soul to the film that makes us feel more in touch with the lead characters, as we’re following them through EVERY step of the way, not cutting anywhere through the journey, but rather following them continuously through this harsh mission. Also, it’s simply a marvelous technical achievement.
James Titchmarsh: The one-shot gimmick (or more so the real-time sensation) has its place as it allows you to become completely absorbed in the film. At first, it was a little annoying as I knew about it going in, so I was constantly thinking about it. But as the film went on, I was so invested in what was on the screen that I totally forgot to pay attention to it. The main purpose it has is for immersion, which it achieves very successfully.
Brennan Dubé: Honestly, it may. It definitely helped to add tension to the situation these soldiers were in. War is like walking a tightrope sometimes and the one-shot gimmick helps to put that on display.
Callum Britter: While there is no denying the skill, effort, and planning that goes into a movie like this, I cannot tell you why any director decides to shoot in one shot in almost any scene, let alone an entire film. I’ve seen it done only twice (Birdman and 1917) and while neither film seemed to suffer from the limitations of a single take, I can’t find any artistic value in the whole affair. I hypothesized that it was an effort to make the audience feel like they’re coming along on the journey of the two soldiers, but the same effect could be achieved by filming the scenes sequentially and over an uninterrupted period with regular cuts in between shots. Obviously, 1917 isn’t a “one-shot” film but you’d expect that takes are longer than average as there are few opportunities for smooth, invisible cuts. This leaves certain aspects of the film feeling over-rehearsed and laid out and you can tell that the actors are working around the position of the camera and trying to keep pace rather than focusing on their character and feeling out room to improvise.
Sean Coates: It’s not a gimmick. Comprising the film of several seamlessly sewn together extended tracking shots presents us with a very personal and singular vision into the front lines that I doubt would be as effective if shot more conventionally. Deakins along with the bold and precise direction of Mendes reels you into the intense, endless cacophony of war. The extended take sequences creating an immediate urgency and an ever-present sense of real danger through Deakins’ dichotomous shots in the cramped, claustrophobic confines of the trenches and the vast, isolated clearings where Schofield and Blake feel like sitting ducks in any given moment.
Nick Kush: There’s something to say about having a movie follow each step that a soldier takes in battle. It’s also clear that this choice resonated with many. But I think that the one-take style of filmmaking is also 1917‘s biggest detriment. Sure, we see every step, but the pre-planning in each step is nauseatingly transparent. Perfectly placing a dead carcass here and a singing cadet there hardly makes the experience immersive. If anything, it causes the film to have a pre-determined quality, where everything is wrapped in a perfect bow and each piece must fit with the rest in some fashion.
Among the 2020 Best Picture nominees, where does 1917 rank?
Ashvin Sivakumar: My top pick for Best Picture still is Quentin Tarantino’s nostalgia piece, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but I think 1917 would be tied for second place with Marriage Story for me. It is simply an ambitious work that paid off, and it thoroughly deserves this recognition — as well as its Golden Globe Best Drama and Best Director win.
James Titchmarsh: 1917 is my third favorite picture of the year, with Knives Out and Ad Astra topping it, so in terms of my favorites, it would probably be at the top of the Best Picture nominees. If we are talking in terms of BEST films of the year judged by pure quality of craft it would probably land somewhere in the middle for me, with Parasite, The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Little Women all being ‘better crafted’ features in my opinion.
Brennan Dubé: Dead last…. yikes! However, I really do like this movie. I’m kind of happy because I LIKE all 9 of the nominees. Sure, there are snubs I’m upset about but I don’t have any hatred towards any of the 9. When it comes to 1917, however, it’s a technical feat, but really nothing more. I enjoyed it in the moment and I do think it deserves a good amount of the love its getting (mostly in the tech categories).
Callum Britter: Of the 9 nominees, I’ve seen 4 so I think I’ve done pretty well this year (though if Parasite came out last year in the UK as it did in America, I’d be able to say that I’d seen over half). On the tier list of those I actually can judge, I’d rank it at least 3rd, putting it in a very strange competition with Marriage Story and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Sean Coates: It’s right in the middle at 5th place. For the first time I can remember, I had seen every best picture nominee before all 9 films were announced. There is a much stronger line-up this year and there are 5 films I loved that got in, but 1917 is the film of that bunch that would be my least favorite, so it’s #5.
Nick Kush: I have it 8th — right between Joker (9th) and Jojo Rabbit (7th). Surprisingly, I like a lot of the movies nominated for Best Picture this year, but Jojo Rabbit is the lowest movie on my list I would recommend. Sorry, Joker and 1917 stans.
Will 1917 have a lasting impact on the public consciousness, or is it more a flash in the pan?
Ashvin Sivakumar: I hope it lasts. It seems like Dunkirk, a film that’s very often compared to 1917 — despite their massive differences — has been a war film that’s stuck around with people since its release in 2017, and I hope the same for 1917. Many argue that it is already slowly being forgotten but I hope that isn’t the case, considering just how bright a technical achievement this film is in crafting an excitingly visceral and equally personal cinematic experience.
James Titchmarsh: It’s tough to say, I believe it might be more of a flash in the pan due to the way media is consumed these days. I don’t think many of the general public will be checking 1917 out until its streaming date as that just seems to be the attitude of most audience members. Because of this, I feel that most people will conclude “I guess it was pretty good but I don’t get why it got so much attention” due to the way it has been consumed. Unfortunately, most people will probably overlook the craft of this due to watching it in their homes and it’s not just because its less immersive but also because of the distractions that come with home viewing (Loud and distracting family members, having to pause the film to do something, etc.).
Brennan Dubé: Flash in the pan. I mean, this is definitely an outstanding achievement on the technical front, the film is downright gorgeous… but in terms of a lasting impact on the public consciousness, no chance. This will definitely be a movie that war film fans refer to in the future as on the very good side but I don’t see it leaving a massive impact years down the road.
Callum Britter: Quick, name me three World War II movies! Okay, now name me three World War I movies. I’m willing to bet you were quicker on the draw for WWII than WWI if you could even name three WWI movies at all. As it happens, 1917 doesn’t have too much competition in its field for an iconic, period-defining war movie but it certainly ticks all the right boxes and doesn’t have anything like Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan to compete with. I can’t say that war films have gotten too much love in recent years, but I think 1917 will resonate with audiences and will stand out as the film people look to as the quintessential World War I film. We can finally see off All Quiet on the Western Front!
Sean Coates: As much as I disagree that 1917 is a gimmick film, the application of the “one-shot” approach is the only aspect of the film that will have much longevity. 1917 has no real profound commentary or conveys anything insightful and meditative about the horrors of war to rattle around in your brain for long after you’ve seen it. However, the immaculate work from both Deakins and Mendes with the photography and staging will make this film last in the memories of many. It could be a different story if it takes out Best Picture, though.
Nick Kush: Flash in the pan, most definitely. 1917 isn’t really about much, and after the sensations that came with everyone’s first viewing in theaters wear off, it’ll quickly disappear from the public consciousness (and the logical errors in its storytelling will become more apparent). A decade from now, the most likely conversation we’ll have about it is wondering why on Earth it won so many Oscars over movies that we’ll still be discussing endlessly.
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