‘Lebanon’ is a claustrophobic Israeli war film which centres on a fictionalised account of its director’s personal experiences in a tank crew during the first Israeli-Lebanon war of 1982. The director in question, Samuel Maoz, stages all of the film’s action within the armoured, iron, confines of the tank itself, as its young, inexperienced and naive crew find themselves alone and surrounded behind enemy lines. The men argue and panic under fire as they struggle to adjust to warfare and are forced to question the orders and judgement of their superiors and (by extension) the war itself.
Winner of the coveted Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, ‘Lebanon’ is one of the very finest war films of recent years and (much like Ari Folman’s stunning 2008 animation ‘Waltz With Bashir’) presents an authentic, compelling and often harrowing account of that first conflict with Lebanon. Limited to four principle characters in one small space, the film is tightly focussed and highly disciplined. The effect is that we spend the whole of its running time getting to know these characters intimately and we come to see the war through their eyes.
This is achieved literally when we view events outside of the vehicle, as they are observed via the tanks gun turret, the crosshair landing uneasily on a range of questionable targets with unsettling results. One of the film’s most effective motifs is in the distance shown between what the men are seeing from the tank and what they are hearing over the command radio. We see them take aim on a family held hostage, a mother and a child, and we hear them told to fire a shell to take them out. We see a smiling, waving man driving a chicken truck and we hear the hapless, shaken gunner ordered to make the man’s vehicle explode.
Maoz shows us all of this with impeccable flair. Still, well composed shots are used and he constructs a grimy social realist mise-en-scene (with the tank interior covered in urine after an impact early on spills the contents of a makeshift latrine) which hightens the sense that the tank is not an especially nice place to be. The cinematography of Giora Bejach (who worked with Maoz on his 2000 documentary feature ‘Total Eclipse’) is equally effective in allowing the film to be beautiful whilst remaining visceral.
‘Lebanon’ is also a rarity in the modern cinema in that it has no problems with pacing. It ends when it should (not a victim of “too-many-endings” syndrome) and begins with the tank rolling into the war zone. There isn’t a dull moment in this, often tense, human story.
Of course, the film is anti-war, but without seeming like a polemic. Maoz doesn’t stand on a soapbox: he simply presents the events to us as he saw them and in doing so we come to share his viewpoint. You could not sit through that experience and come to any other conclusion than war being a terrible exercise. One that leaves scores dead who may not have even been involved in the conflict. But the strength of Maoz’s picture is that, confined to the men in the tank and bereft of any political context or discussion, we just see the humanist plight of people in a nonsensical situation, asked to wreak violence upon their fellow man (never more obviously than when we witness the cruel harassment of a Syrian prisoner of war by a berserk Christian Phalangist ally).
We see the brutality of the Israeli war-machine alongside the difficulties of the average soldier, a fact helped by the principle actors who create distinct characters which we can easily follow even within the dark confines of the dark and despite the uniformity of their clothing and haircuts.
Maoz doesn’t shy away from making overtly political points completely, however. One great moment sees the crew informed by a superior that out of “respect” for the international community’s decision to outlaw phosphorous bombs, they will refer to the weapons as “flaming smoke”. We see cans of “7-up” abandoned in the city shops and a poster of the World Trade Center on the wall of a bombed-out Lebanon travel agency, suggesting that the Islamic world were perhaps not born anti-American, but made that way through years of aggressive foreign policy.
Where ‘Lebanon’ differs from some of my favourite anti-war movies is that many use humour to send up the futility and absurdity of war (‘Dr. Strangelove’ and even a television drama like HBO’s ‘Generation Kill’ are good examples), yet Maoz seldom seeks to raise a smile (and maybe he shouldn’t). Perhaps this is a significant difference between writers or directors emotionally removed from the conflict they are depicting and those who actually fought in it, but whatever the reason, it is a noticeable difference between this film and so many others. Ultimately I am far more likely to re-watch a humorous, darkly comic, satirical war film like ‘Full Metal Jacket’, but Maoz’s film is as rousing and potent as any of those classic movies and looks set to become a significant modern war film. ‘Lebanon’ is vital, visually stunning, must-see cinema.
This article was first posted on May 13, 2010