Writer-director Tobias Lindholm recaptures the hard-knuckled tension of 2012’s A Hijacking in his gripping third feature A War, recently upgraded to the nine-film shortlist for the foreign language Oscar. It more than deserves the credit – Lindholm’s film is one of the best movies about recent Western interventions into the Middle East, and a great post-9/11 war movie in its own right. The set up for A War – the indefinite article is important – is deceptively simple. Pilou Asbæk plays weary but level-headed company commander Claus, leading a group of Danish soldiers in an unnamed Afghan province.
Leading from a control booth far from the front line, he sees one of his soldiers blown up by an IED, and soon decides it’s his duty to lead from the front. But in one routine mission his men find themselves against heavy firepower, and Claus makes a split-decision to save his men that has both moral and legal consequences. Split between the rugged Afghan terrain and a suffocating military court room in Denmark, Lindholm’s film captures better than any film in recent memory that actions on the battlefield do have consequences back home. But these aren’t necessarily the legal arguments of war crimes that are levelled at Claus; they are moral and personal, they are the corruption not of legal definition of murder, but the breakdown of a moral man forced to take a deadly decision in the heat of the action. And when right and wrong has blurred, who is to blame?
Cinema has argued about the breakdown of innocence many times before – Vietnam movies Causalities of War, Platoon and The Deer Hunter spring to mind – but the European perspective on the War on Terror has a different tone to the moral outcry that artists in the UK and USA have incessantly presented. Lindholm’s main character is a good man, doing what we the audience would think appropriate in the situation. His actions are a tragedy – but they still need justice. And yet Lindholm anchors this in the personal. In the background is the culture that brought these wars into being, but the director leaves gun-ho interpretations to the Kathryn Bigelows and Oliver Stones of cinema. Instead this is understanding how we got to the position where soldiers inevitably make rash, violent decisions, even when they themselves repeat the politicians’ argument that they are “rebuilding their country”.
Asbæk is towering as Claus, never less than believable as the leader of his platoon, and standout as he comes to terms with the cracks in his own story. Indeed, such is the visceral nature of the scene, one of the most extraordinary features of the film is that we the audience are none-the-wiser as to whether Claus did the right thing in the circumstances. Back at home in Denmark, Claus’ wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) is devastating at capturing the strain of raising three kids on her own, and the terror of having a bread-winner husband on trial: “You may have killed eight children, but you have three living at home,” she argues, distilling the most basic of human reactions to any conflict in far-off lands.
Ed Frankl | @Ed_Frankl