Like the best war movies, Lebanon makes a statement about the nature of war without seeming like it’s making any statement at all. It doesn’t get swept up in examining the political machinations that led to the First Lebanon War and picking sides. It simply depicts four inexperienced men inside the turret of an Israeli tank as it rolls through Lebanon at the start of the war in 1982. It’s at once a microcosmic view of the hell of war and a harrowing thriller. Not to sound too hyperbolic, but it’s a tremendous film that makes The Hurt Locker look like The Delta Force.
The men on the tank are Assi (Itay Tiran), the commander; Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the gunner; Herzl (Oshri Cohen), the loader; and Yigal (Michael Moshonov, the driver). The commander on the ground, Jamil (Zohar Strauss), talks to them over the radio and occasionally in person. Other than that and the view through the turret’s scope, the foursome (and the audience) has no other interaction with the outside world. Like Das Boot or Kanal, writer/director Samuel Maoz uses the claustrophobia to his advantage.
The story follows the tank on the first day of the war. They follow troops on the ground to a city that’s already been flattened by the Israeli Air Force, but things go awry when they learn Syrian forces have arrived to help the Lebanese. More goes awry inside the tank than outside, however. Shmulik suffers a panic attack when asked to fire on hostiles. As punishment, Jamil forces them to temporarily stow the corpse of a felled Israeli soldier until an evacuation helicopter can arrive. Later, the corpse is replaced with a wounded Syrian prisoner.
Tension mounts as the situation worsens. The tank gets hit by an RPG, making its maneuverability much more difficult. The soldiers in the tank start to believe Jamil isn’t telling them the full truth. Eventually, as night falls, they’re abandoned by the ground troops and left to fend for themselves. Even Assi loses his unwavering cockiness and gives in to fear, coping by pathetically attempting to force order onto the chaos surrounding the tank.
François Truffaut once allegedly said that it’s impossible to make an antiwar film, because the action of combat is inherently too exciting. A handful of films have proved this wrong (the aforementioned Das Boot and Kanal leap to mind, as do Three Kings and Paths of Glory), and Lebanon joins their ranks. The “action sequences,” shot entirely from the point of view of the turret scope, are like something from the world’s most depressing first-person shooter game. Maoz drains whatever excitement might have been found in the gunfights and explosions by focusing on the injured, dead, and grieving—not to mention panic-stricken Shmulik who has to listen to repeated orders to fire as he stares at a terrified married couple and their five-year-old daughter, taken hostage by a Lebanese soldier.
Maoz builds the suspense to a taut third act, one of the best I’ve ever seen in a war movie. I can’t exactly call it satisfying because the movie itself is such an uncomfortable experience, but it accomplishes exactly what the film’s objective seems to be: to show the dirtiness and disorganization of war, and the human toll on both innocents (also known as “collateral damage”) and soldiers. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s infinitely more rewarding than, say, The Expendables (which I enjoyed more than Mark, but not because of its ruminations on war and the human condition).
I also appreciated The Hurt Locker, but it amazes me that the film received so many accolades last year when Lebanon (which debuted almost a year ago at the Venice Film Festival) went largely ignored. Do American moviegoers really hate subtitles that much?
This is a great film that probably won’t be in theatres long, so see it while you can. For you readers in Chicago, it’s playing at the Music Box for at least the next week.