Kathryn Bigelow’s multiple-Academy Award winning 2008 film The Hurt Locker has been very influential on the modern war film. Focusing less on action, but also keeping the characters human (instead of, say, caricatured, as in the modern anti-war film), Hurt Locker showed possible to tell a compelling story and make it more compelling for its human aspect. But it also highlighted some of the challenges with doing so, as Locker’s foundering third act tended to lose the audience.
Which brings us to the Danish film A War, an entry in this year’s foreign language Oscar category.
One hates to repeat one’s self but, like many of this year’s contenders, this movie is good—and a slog. Writer/director Tobias Lindhome has two other credits we’ve seen recently: The Hunt (which he wrote) and A Hijacking (which he wrote and directed). Not surprisingly, this movie is a lot more like A Hijacking than The Hunt. (Thomas Vinterberg, who directed The Hunt directed the largely neglected Far From The Madding Crowd this year.)
Not surprisingly, but unfortunately.
There seems to be a trend among some filmmakers lately whereby they indicate lengthiness and slow-paced-ness but actually having long scenes of nothing happening. It’s not totally ineffective, mind you, but there’s a limit to how much nothing I want to watch. Toward the end of this movie, for example, there’s a one or two minute shot of seagulls flying away. That’s almost Birdemic territory right there.
It works for a while here, but then starts to work against things, as the proceedings get more suspenseful, the actual filming stays at the same pace as it was at the beginning.
The story concerns a Danish commander in Afghanistan who ends up breaking the rules of engagement in order to save one of his men. The arc of the movie concerns his hands-on approach in Iraq, his family back home, and his response to the challenges that arise as a result of his dubious call.
Good stuff, right? Plenty of room for suspense, for characters you care about, even for some action one the one side, and moral dilemmas on the other. And the movie does, indeed, deliver all that.
In order to invest, to fully invest, the audience needs to know what’s what. And that’s where the movie falls short. In an attempt to (I suspect) keep the focus on the personal drama, we’re not given enough information to know what the role of this Danish group is, what role the commander has, the extent to which he actually succeeds in that role, and so on. The Boy is particularly sensitive to this, as he is interested in martial matters, but I think even hoplophobes are going to find certain questions gone begging.
The setup is that the Danes go out and mingle with the natives. Pedersen (our protagonist) is the commander of the base, but he goes out anyway, and in particular, he goes out so that one of his shell-shocked troops doesn’t have to. (No Patton here.) This becomes an issue later on when his second-in-command suggests that the base itself was suffering because he was playing soldier when they really needed coordination and intel.
A situation which may well be true and is in fact entirely concordant with the fateful event that provides the story its impetus, but which we also are given no information about.
There’s another weird thing: The squad is “forced” by a local to help his daughter, who’s been badly burned. Later, said family shows up at the base saying “Hey, the bad guys heard you helped us and now insist that dad go fight with them or they’ll kill us all.” The Danish crew assures them that they’ll take care of the bad guys (the Taliban, actually). The family says “The Taliban come at night. You come in the day. They’re going to come tonight and kill us.” The Danes say “You can’t stay here. Go home and get killed and we’ll avenge your deaths tomorrow.”
Not really on that last one, but they might have well as done. Nobody argues that the Taliban isn’t coming at night. There’s no reason to believe this family won’t be killed. OK, maybe rules prohibit you from letting them stay on the base (we’re never told, we’re just told “we can’t”, even though this guy is the CO), but maybe they could set up a little camp a short distance away. Or—and this is a wild idea—maybe you set up an ambush for the baddies that night, and kill them rather than letting them terrorize the people you’re supposed to protect.
I’m sure—well, I’m not sure, but I could be convinced that there were reasons for all of this. The movie doesn’t give us reasons. War is hard. There are rules of engagement, and…yeah. Those are things.
The actual crux of the movie is rules of engagement, and not whether or not Pedersen violated them (because he did), but from the audience’s perspective, whether that violation was warranted. We know he does it to save a soldier’s life, but we also know—or are led to believe by the immediate cessation of attack after Pedersen makes the call—that it was the right call. But the movie never gives us that. It only gives us a big pile of evidence against our protagonist, and virtually none about whether he’s really just a living example of the Peter Principle or whether Dane ROEs are as dumb as America’s can be.
I think it’s important because art, in order to be art, has to allow for contributions from the audience, and when the audience has so little data—I mean, we know Pedersen’s not a bad guy, in any traditional sense of the word, but we don’t know if he’s competent—it becomes very hard to contribute much. Especially given the moral ambiguity of “Should I lie and get off scott-free even though it goes against every fiber of my being?”
Obviously, people have different notions here but The Boy and I needed to know, because otherwise the soldiers become just victims of circumstance. I’d hate—but wouldn’t be surprised—to think that was the director’s aim.
This was the penultimate entry in the “shockingly disappointing foreign language Oscar” category, following Theeb and Son of Saul and preceding Embrace of the Serpent. (And excluding the excellent Mustang.)