September 16, 2010

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Lebanon (R)
The early days of the Israeli-Lebanese war get the Das Boot treatment in Lebanon, a movie that reduces its focus on war to the stresses and horrors of soldiers inside a single tank.
Actually, having never seen Das Boot, I should say this movie reminds me of all those clips from Das Boot I’ve seen on AFI specials over the years. This structure makes War — and its issues and political implications — less important to the story, instead putting the fundamental focus on the survival of the day or so in which the movie takes place. It also, when we do get the horrors of war, makes those horrors all the more horrible.

Gunner Shmulik (Yoav Donat), driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov), weapon-loader Herzl (Oshri Cohen) and tank commander Assi (Itay Tiran) are in a tank on the Israeli-Lebanese border, heading into Lebanon and into a town that has been flattened by the Israeli Air Force. The job of infantry led by Jamil (Zohar Shtrauss), a beleaguered commander of the ground forces at that site, and the tank is to find and clear out any remaining opposition.

Easier said by far away generals than done by these soldiers. Shmulik stares through the gun sight not just at crumbling buildings and, occasionally, a shooting enemy; he also sees a woman begging for her young daughter’s life. He sees Jamil argue into the radio with higher-ups. He sees shooting and casualties on both sides and — more often than not — no sense of where it comes from. He is during the tank’s first run-in with an enemy force paralyzed and unable to shoot until too late. Later, he shoots too soon and, instead of hitting a truck full of weapons and insurgents, hits a farmer and his chickens.
As the battle wears on, the men feel more and more wrung out — unsure of exactly what their mission is and whom to trust. A Syrian soldier is captured — why are there Syrians here? Have we gotten lost, the men wonder. Later, Phalangist “allies” offer to help the tank get to their objective but everything about those men and their advice seems suspect.

Lebanon is Band of Brothers stripped of its sheen and its epic scope. Here we get only men crouching in the dark, wanting only to go home to their mothers, as one solider moans when he loses his composure.

Lebanon does the horror of war well; it does momentum and visual explanation less well. The tight, dark space helps you feel the men’s claustrophobia and sense of being trapped in this confusing conflict but it also confuses some events itself. We know horrible things are happening and that the men are terrified — we just can’t always see what’s going on and who is being driven mad.
Though about an earlier war, Lebanon feels plenty relevant now and gets its impact from the smart way it reduces world events to the personal horror of a handful of men. B

Rated R for disturbing bloody violence, language including sexual references and some nudity. Written and directed by Samuel Maoz, Lebanon is an hour and 32 minutes long and distributed in limited release by Sony Pictures Classics.