Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Men at War: Lebanon

In 1982, the PLO massed their forces in southern Lebanon along Israel’s border, using it as staging ground for mortar barrages and terrorist operations. Much to the world’s feigned surprise, Israel eventually tired of the constant attacks, launching an incursion into her occupied Northern neighbor. The resulting conflict got messy quickly, as is graphically illustrated in Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon (trailer here), the winner of the 2009 Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion, which opens this Friday in New York.

Depicting the hurry-up-and-wait realities of war for a four man tank crew, nearly every review compares the claustrophobic Lebanon to Das Boat, so let us dispense with that right from the top, as apt as it might be. Indeed, their iron shell is damp creaky beast, not nearly as reliable as a soldier driving into a combat zone would hope for. The crew, including their commander Assi, is also young and inexperienced. This mission will be their first taste of action, so it is probably inevitable they will make some mistakes.

Eventually, the tank crew rendezvouses with an infantry squad led by Jamil, a grizzled veteran. Though he dresses them down for their lack of professionalism, he still has a mission for them, involving shadowy falangists, Israel’s ostensive Lebanese Christian allies, and a captured Syrian. Of course, the Syrian is in for some rough treatment at the hands of the falangists, but the film ignores the rather obvious question of just why he was in Lebanon in the first place.

In truth, the Israeli film industry is much like Hollywood, always prepared to blame its own country first, while justifying the crimes of those bent on their own destruction. Fortunately, Lebanon is not nearly as ideological and revisionist as Waltz with Bashir. It is really a film about the fog of war, in which deadly errors are made not of malice, but uncertainty, fear, and inexperience. As a result, it is relatively easy to accept it as a war film, despite its clear editorial bias against the falangists in particular and the Israeli incursion in general.

The dank tank interior, designed by Ariel Roshko, is indeed an effective setting, using the confined space to ratchet up the tension. We hardly see any action outside its mechanized armor, except that spied through the sites of its guns. However, the four green crew members are largely indistinguishable from each other. The only actor really making any lasting impression is Zohar Strauss as the no-nonsense field commander Jamil. It is a gritty, wholly credible performance that also expresses the genuine concern officers have for the men under their command, even when they cannot let it show.

Lebanon evokes the chaos of battle quite well, but it ends a bit abruptly, not even concluding the skirmish in question, let alone the battle or the war. As a result, most viewers will be a bit confused leaving the film, wondering why Maoz went to all that effort just to get to that point. Purely as a war film though, it is very well produced, featuring a distinctive supporting turn from Strauss. Better than expected, Lebanon opens this Friday (8/6) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.