The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘1917’ is gimmicky and distancing, yet also a potent and unforgettable piece of filmmaking

George MacKay, center, in “1917.” (François Duhamel/Universal Pictures)
(2.5 stars)

As a technical exercise in filmmaking, “1917” is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” and “Birdman” — a nearly two-hour “oner,” or continuous shot, during which the story seems to unfold in seamless real time.

The fact that Sam Mendes used the conceit to portray the bravery, anguish, death and desecrated landscapes of World War I feels like the right approach at the right time: Just last year, Peter Jackson's magnificent documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” reignited interest in the Great War, and sequences like Joe Wright's single-shot depiction of Dunkirk in “Atonement” prove just how powerfully immersive such bravura gestures can be.

Which makes it all the more of a letdown that “1917” is impressive but oddly distancing; ultimately stirring but too often gimmicky. While its visual language and subjective camera might hold promise for conveying the suffering and sacrifice of World War I to a generation raised on video games and virtual reality, there are moments when “1917” feels as rote as any other exercise in leveling-up. Thankfully, the film is anchored by a lead performance that overcomes its self-imposed limitations.

As a British lance corporal named Schofield, George MacKay delivers a breakout performance, acquitting his primary task — to both witness the horrors of war and confidently lead the audience through them — with just the right combination of vulnerability and quiet command. As “1917” opens, Schofield and his friend Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are assigned the daunting task of delivering a life-or-death message to 1,600 British troops preparing to attack German enemy lines. What ensues is a classic race against the clock — made more urgent by the fact that the survival of Blake's own brother is at stake — as the soldiers encounter perils as well as moments of improbable poetry, altruism and blunt human cruelty.

And, as idealistic young men, they must endure the war-ravaged pessimism of their elders, who appear right on cue to give voice to variations on the theme of war-as-hell. As cinematographer Roger Deakins sends his unchained camera through the muddy, rat-infested trenches, corpse-strewn battlefields and abandoned farms of the French countryside, an all-star cast of Britain's finest actors shows up to appear in brief but vivid cameos, including Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Andrew Scott. Using occasional moments of darkness as editing opportunities, Deakins creates a remarkably convincing simulation of the uninterrupted flow of time: doing away with shaky-cam naturalism, he combines fluid, dancerly movement with stately composition and framing to create images of breathtaking beauty.

As often as not in “1917,” those images exist side-by-side with hyper-real sequences that would be right at home in any action movie or aforementioned video game, where protagonists dodge booby traps, collapsing buildings and other obstacles to gain extra life. As generic or even downright corny as some of these encounters can be, MacKay and Chapman do an outstanding job of grounding them in the palpable fears and shaky courage of men who are still clearly boys. Although Mendes and his co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns eschew the kind of commentary that made films like “Paths of Glory” such persuasive indictments of military hierarchy, “1917” leaves viewers with the indelible and overwhelming impression that war isn't just hell but an unconscionable waste.

Nowhere is this clearer — or more affectingly conveyed — than in “1917’s” final sequence, a meticulously choreographed and executed set piece that ends up bringing the movie full circle literally, figuratively and satisfyingly. It's a moment of pure spectacle, but thanks to MacKay’s enormously accomplished performance throughout the film, it's also a moment of pure heart. What might have been easily dismissed as little more than a simplistic stunt, instead becomes a potent and unforgettable piece of cinema.

R. Opens Christmas Day at area theaters. Contains violence, some disturbing images and strong language. 118 minutes.