“1917” Utilizes the One-Shot Film to Its Greatest Potential


Aedan Henry, Staff Writer

One-shot films, movies meant to look like a single shot, have been rare in cinema’s history. There are only two notable mainstream examples prior to this year, those being Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” in 1948 and Alejandro Iñárritu’s “Birdman” in 2014. On top of being expensive and time consuming to film, one-shots are awkward to pace. They can bore audiences with the slow moments between the action, which would normally be cut out. But this year’s one-shot World War I epic, “1917,” proves that a single take does not need to cut out the tension.

Directed by Sam Mendes, who also made “American Beauty” and “Skyfall,” “1917follows two young British soldiers in World War I as they travel into enemy territory to deliver an urgent message that will save thousands of soldiers. “1917” is filmed and edited to appear as just two shots, so during the entire film the camera follows behind the two soldiers as they traverse the French countryside, narrowly avoiding danger and slowly inching closer to the enemy. This effect produces some of the best edge-of-your-seat tension that I have seen in a war movie. Early in the film there is an explosion and the camera is forced to linger on every moment as the characters are shocked by the blast, struggling to get up. Later, when they get shot at, it feels like the audience gets shot at. We have to sit through the process of reloading guns, ducking behind cover, and waiting for the perfect moment to shoot back. It is agonizing.

But even in the moments between the action, there is an ever-present suspense in the air. An ambush could happen at any moment. They could encounter an enemy around any corner. As they explore their surroundings, what they see is what we see, nothing else. Mendes strategically places the camera behind the character’s heads for many of these moments, forcing the audience into their perspective. And the camera moves just a bit slower than their vision, so they walk into a potentially dangerous room just a bit before we see that it is safe. The cinematography is completely engrossing.

“1917” makes you feel like you are in the war. We see the moment-to-moment lives of the soldiers in terrible conditions. They are put into danger far beyond what their young age should warrant. World War I is shown in its full devastation and death. The set design reinforces this. Cities and houses are destroyed, and every set piece is littered with the dead corpses of soldiers, a constant reminder of the lingering threat. The most stunning shot moves over a ruined city in the middle of the dark night, illuminated by overhead flares and a massive fire burning far in the distance.

The weaker link in this film is certainly the acting. It tries to enhance its production with cameos from famous British actors like Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, and Benedict Cumberbatch, but their roles are too small for a great performance. The two lead actors do a fine job, but it is nothing special and their dialogue often feels just slightly stiff. In a setting where quickly connecting to the leads is integral to the suspense, it falls a bit flat. However, towards the end of the film, their acting significantly improves as the diminishing time remaining in the mission drives the characters to desperation.

“1917” is overall a thrillingly realistic war movie that perfectly utilizes a one-shot technique to draw attention to the ticking clock. It did not quite live up to “best film of the year,” but it is an exciting adventure that is sure to appeal to almost everyone.