I was listening to a podcast recently hosted by actor Alan Alda where he had Marriage Story writer/director Noah Baumbach. At the beginning of the podcast, the pair discussed the art of editing. Alda was describing a scene from a movie with Al Pacino (he never mentioned the name of the film, but likely it was either Dog Day Afternoon or Serpico) in which Pacino’s character was talking to someone else in a long shot.
In the film, Alda recalls the pair exchanging a few lines of dialogue before the editor, Dede Allen, cut into a close up of one of their faces. This became a lesson for Alda because he “wanted to see that face just around the time she cut. She didn’t cut until I wanted her to cut.”
Noah explained, “Had she done it earlier that cut wouldn’t have meant anything.” I kept thinking about that riveting cinematography and editing exchange when I was watching 1917.
Cut From the Same Cloth
Much has been made of director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins‘ attempt to make the entire film look like one continuous shot.
Of course, this isn’t the first time this has been done in cinema. Alfred Hitchcock used this (at the time) groundbreaking effect in his 1948 feature, Rope, and the most recent well-known example is the Oscar-winning film Birdman. However, both of these films are smaller in scale. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that comes close to the scope of 1917 attempting this (a $90M-budget war film).
Quick note: This World War I thriller revolves around two British lance corporals are sent to give word to stop an attack in the trenches by the Germans before they are led into a trap potentially killing hundreds of people.
This film is a technical achievement. I can’t overstate that enough. I don’t want this review to seem like I don’t appreciate the efforts of the filmmakers and actors to make this happen because it is undeniably impressive. There is a lot of logistical and prep work that goes into these long-tracking shots of which this movie is composed. In fact, the only number I’ve seen cited is from Scott Derrickson’s twitter at 40 different shots stitched together in the edit.
Despite how impressive 1917 is, I think it ultimately works against itself.
The idea behind it is to put you in the shoes of the soldiers where you can never look away and you’re as stuck, like them, adding a layer of intensity. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come across that way.
Yes, we are stuck with them, but not in the way we should be. Instead of never being allowed to look away and experiencing all their emotions, I kept thinking, “Is there a faster way to get where we are going?” This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be slower moments but, with the pace of filmmaking here, it makes the slower moment feel like a snail crawl.
Just Cut It Out
That brings me back to Alda podcast.
The entire time I was watching 1917, I kept wanting a cut. I felt the story needed cuts–not just to get where we needed to go faster, but also to build character. There are many scenes where we are stuck looking at the back of the character’s head because the camera hasn’t rotated back around to their faces. Despite the excellent performances of Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, I hardly felt connected to them the way the filmmaking intended to create.
Sam Mendes actually handicaps himself because he created a scenario where he can’t cut and manipulate time.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk often gets criticized for its character work but I actually think Nolan pulled off something quite extraordinary with that film. We really don’t know any of the characters and never really given a moment to get to know them; yet, the characters still function as they are supposed to because they have no agency, in the sense of the overarching plot.
The allies lose Dunkirk, the battle was an evacuation, nothing the soldiers do in that movie would turn the tide of battle. Instead, the character’s agency is found somewhere else, in how they choose to try and survive. That’s how we learn about who they are. Action always equals character, but in Dunkirk, action is the only character and that’s why for 107 minutes, that movie is unrelenting.
In 1917, the characters have agency. Their actions could radically change the outcome of the day (and they do). So why not get to know them? Why not use the slower moments to cut to their faces and see how react to the story and find humanity in the midst of it? Why do these soldiers choose to go and do what they do? Where is the doubt for them to overcome? What is the struggle for survival and the struggle to make hard choices?
This isn’t to say the “one take” never works in this movie. I found the second half to be far more engaging than the first half. There is a scene that takes place at nighttime with shifting light sources in the ruins of a town harboring enemy troops. It is heart-pounding and the final sequence is stunning.
It just makes me wonder why not just do the war sequences in one take and the character moments the other way?
In the first half, I didn’t think the one take added much to crossing no man’s land because of its vast size. The camera can’t capture all the hidden danger and horror that lurks in front of them. The reason why the one-take idea works so well in Birdman is it takes place in mostly tight locations that keep the characters close together and allow the camera to give each character in Birdman the time they need to tell their part of the story. It is also much faster-paced reflecting the hustle and bustle world of theater. Plus the movie has an almost surreal and ambiguous form of reality.
The floating and moving cameras feel almost dreamlike. 1917 is a realistic war film that keeps the camera more confined. The long takes work well in the nighttime scene because of the constant shifting danger and being stuck in unfamiliar geography. The audience is in the dark of what’s around the corner just like the characters. Walking across the open field with two characters talking doesn’t have that type of effect. It just keeps the film feeling slow when in actuality every second counts since this is a race against time.
1917 is far from bad, despite most of my review sounding negative.
There are a few emotional beats toward the end that really work and the second half is better than the first half (mostly because we are now past a lot of the heavy lifting of getting our characters where they needed to go). As a technical achievement, this movie excels, but this is a case of where great technique runs counter to the story that you’re trying to tell. As an early supporter of the film, I came away a bit disappointed. It’s fun to showcase your cinematographer’s muscles but sometimes you just feel like you need a cut.