Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Waltz with Bashir

War is Hell, so the movies tell us. There have been some truly great anti-war films, but the best are universal in their themes, and not inextricably tied to the circumstances of a particular conflict. This is why Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is a great film and the recent anti-war films have been, without exception, dismal failures. Opening Christmas Day in Los Angeles (and New York the day after), Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (trailer here) starts out as a potentially great anti-war film, but bogs down in the politics of its conflict: the 1982 Israeli military incursion into Lebanon.

Billed as an animated documentary, Bashir chronicles writer-director-producer Ari Folman’s efforts to awaken suppressed memories from his military service in Lebanon. Much of what he has forgotten involves the deaths at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps. In retribution for the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese president-elect, Christian militia attacked the camps. Initially looking for PLO terrorists who had indeed been harbored there, events quickly deteriorated into bloodshed. While not directly involved, we are told the Israeli military is thought to have had a pretty good idea of what was happening as it went down. In Bashir, Folman and his comrades are still trying to mentally and emotionally process these events.

Out of the recent glut of anti-war films (broadly defined), Bashir might actually be the best. Admittedly, the bar has been set pretty low, but Folman and director of animation Yoni Goodman have created some striking visuals. The opening sequences involving the dogs that haunt a fellow Beirut veteran’s dreams are powerful stuff, forming a most compelling portrayal of the dehumanization of war. As he explains to the director, he knows exactly how many of the savage canines are chasing him, because he vividly remembers killing each and every one as part of a reconnaissance mission. Folman also gets surprising mileage from structuring the story as a psychological investigation. Indeed, the process of ferreting out Folman’s repressed memories makes consistently intriguing drama.

Unfortunately, the more political Bashir gets, the more it looses its way. We see scenes implicating the late Ariel Sharon, which should be considered controversial rather than gospel. Of course, we are shown the Sabra and Shatila massacres in graphic detail, including the only non-animated archival news footage included in the film. What we do not see is the Gemayel assassination or the constant bombardments and terrorist attacks the PLO staged from Lebanon, which precipitated 1982 invasion in the first place. These are only perfunctorily referenced through dialogue.

Bashir has been well received in Israel, where it recently won their equivalent of the Academy Award for best picture, automatically making it their official selection for the Academy’s best foreign language film. Its Oscar campaign should be interesting to watch, given recent history. Last year, France unsuccessfully submitted the animated Persepolis for best foreign language picture, but it did snag a best animated nomination. Israel’s original best foreign language selection, The Band’s Visit, was disqualified for having too much English content, but its replacement, Beaufort, another revisionist Beirut drama, beat out Persepolis and other highly touted releases for a foreign language nomination.

Though technically well made, Bashir lacks the heart of either Band or Persepolis, but its knee-jerk criticism of the Israeli military may well find an appreciative audience at the Academy. While Bashir’s animation is often striking, ultimately the film suffers for prioritizing its lopsided political content above character development. It opens Christmas Day in Los Angeles and on Friday here in New York at the Sunshine Theater.