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Schofield (George MacKay) stands in a trench amidst other soldiers and falling debris in 1917 Universal Pictures

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The ‘single-shot’ war movie 1917 is a trick without a purpose

Sam Mendes’ World War I epic is audacious in the wrong ways

The technical hook of 1917, a World War I action drama told in one continuous shot, is an illusion. Shadowy hallways, screen-crossing soldiers, and occasional computer graphics mask the cuts as two young men trek across battle-scarred France to deliver a life-or-death message. There is suspense in the style — danger erupts out of nowhere, and the unbroken drama emphasizes the geography of the daunting journey. At least at first.

The point of 1917 is also an illusion. Whereas Alexander Sokurov’s infamous film Russian Ark condensed 300 years of Soviet history into a single, one-take shot, writer-director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) cherry-picks World War I anecdotes and war-movie tropes as fodder for set-pieces. Renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins shoots the hell out of each one, but each generic turn in the story feels like another part of a sleight-of-hand trick. What’s meant to be an epic film has the emotional heft of David Copperfield making an airplane disappear. But when a film is trying to evoke the full tragedy of war, “How’d they do that?” is not a substitute for meaning.

On April 6, 1917, the day the United States enters the war effort against Germany, an urgent matter arises in a British trench: The Germans have retreated from one line to another, with plans to catch an advancing British faction in a trap. To prevent disaster, officers handpick Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) to cross enemy territory and deliver the aerial intel. Hoping to save his brother, a soldier in the doomed battalion, Blake agrees and grabs his friend Schofield (George MacKay) by the collar to be his other man on the mission. The meticulous, large-scale production design kicks that action off on a believable foot — which is to say, it makes Blake’s mission look impossible.

There are frames in 1917 that will be #OnePerfectShot-ed into the next decade. Deakins’ wide-lens camerawork finds macabre beauty as Mendes travels out of the trenches and into the man-made hell of the battlefield. Blake and Schofield cross barbed-wire barricades, a no man’s land littered with horse carcasses, and steep dikes blown open by mortar fire before they even cross the German line. Every step leaves them wide open to gunfire. The grimy expanse, and the fear radiating off the two soldiers, is reason enough to disguise the sequence as one unflinching take.

The script doesn’t vindicate the rest of the meandering direction. Though backstory leaks in through walk-and-talk chatter, Blake, Schofield, and passersby all feel like proxies for All Quiet on the Western Front archetypes, herded to the finish line by the demands of real-time filmmaking. The few moments of personal drama explode into Michael Bay-like stunt sequences that take the tone over the top. Even the most painterly bursts of action, like a silhouetted fistfight backlit by fire, feel more like James Bond side quests than extensions of the wartime dread that Mendes initially seems to interrogate.

When Blake and Schofield enter a German trench lit by flickering bulbs, Mendes goes into full horror mode, complete with jump scares and bursts of violence. The twist works until the boys run away, and the limitations of the one-shot pretense become as suffocating as the narrow underground hallways. Combined with the fluid motion, canned lines like “the whole thing’s coming down!” and “don’t let go!” feel straight out of a first-person shooter campaign. War games like Battlefield 1 or the Call of Duty series have already delivered the experience of 1917 over and over and over, and to more immersive effect.

Schofield (George MacKay) runs from German mortar fire across the British trench in 1917 Universal Pictures

Modern war movies have found ways to see war from a new perspective, whether through slick docudrama (Saving Private Ryan), pulpy action (Fury), or stripped-down, expositionless thrills (Dunkirk). 1917 isn’t focused enough to take on any clear role. The honest depiction of the destruction and decay of World War I is countered by an insistence on name actors (quick appearances by Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden feel especially jarring) and Thomas Newman’s familiar, reverberating score. When the film might feel too stark, Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns indulge in Hollywood moments. A late scene involving a French girl and the parentless baby she harbors in an under-siege town is cute, unless you think about everything else before and after it.

1917 is a noble, failed experiment in breaking the rules. The single-shot-movie gimmick has an obvious appeal for a theater-trained director like Sam Mendes; just as audiences look past the stage and lights of a theater to home in on the drama, erasing the conventions of camerawork and editing could emphasize the physicality of performance. In a completely continuous environment, each line, each step, each loss could mean more than it does in a less calculated project. But despite over 100 years of meditation on what happened to the men sent to fight in World War I, the film can’t find a voice to amplify — except for Mendes’ own. The war happened. Here it is. In one take.

1917 opens in limited release on Dec. 25. The film opens wide on Jan. 10, 2020.