In the middle of the Golden-Globe nominated Atonement, a 5 1/2-minute shot unfolds as Robbie, a British World War II soldier (played by James McAvoy), steps on France’s Dunkirk beach, where the final point in the British retreat from the Germans is portrayed as a grim circus of defeat and chaos. Through cinema history, audacious, lengthy tracking shots, like the one in Atonement, have captivated filmmakers and movie buffs who marvel at their grace and choreography. In a medium predicated on storytelling through the juxtaposition of images, the long tracking shot is the cinematic equivalent of a no-hitter in baseball: rare, untouched, and very difficult to pull off, according to the Associated Press.
“When we were making it, I didn’t see it in the context of the classic tracking shot, or the history of great tracking shots,” said Wright, whose “Pride & Prejudice” included a long shot, as did his British TV film “Charles II.” “It felt much, much smaller than that.”
But of course, the shot has been received precisely in that context.
Variety deputy editor Anne Thompson blogged:It’s a stunning shot, but does it take the viewer out of the movie, or serve a dramatic purpose? It makes you say, ‘Wow, what a long shot! Look what Joe Wright did with the camera! Look how complex this is!’ I for one get a kick out of bravura shots like this, whether it’s Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, Robert Altman, Orson Welles, Antonioni or Alfonso Cuaron.”
Perhaps the highest possible praise for such cinematic devices would echo that of umpires in baseball they’re doing their job well when no one even notices them.
New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, however, said the “Atonement” shot’s only impression is: “`Wow, that’s quite a tracking shot,’ when it should be `My God, what a horrible experience that must have been.'”