It's all in the eyes in 'Lebanon'
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, August 27, 2010
Drones and other unmanned "ambassadors of death" have made killing from afar a fairly uncomplicated task. The dead are nameless, faceless entities, dots on a map. But the Israeli film "Lebanon," based on the life of writer-director Samuel Maoz, reinstates the terrible intimacy of battle, giving a zoomed-in view of combat through the plight of four inexperienced soldiers during the start of the first Lebanon war in 1982.
While the title alone may send people into a tizzy, this actually isn't a movie about which side is right or wrong so much as a film about war in general -- the messiness of it, the fact that most choices aren't tidy ones and how even acts of wartime humanity feel muddied by the circumstances.
The winner of the 2009 Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the movie offers something fresh for the genre; all the action takes place inside a tank, giving the oppressive feeling that the four young men (plus occasional visitors) are performing their duties while folded into a sofa bed. The only view of the outside world is through an often obstructed periscope.
The group's first task seems straightforward enough coming from the no-nonsense commanding officer. When the gunner, Shmuel, sees a car coming, he needs to fire two warning shots then blow the thing up. But Shmuel is a bit of a delicate flower -- a conflicted novice with frozen fingers and a gag reflex -- and his inability to follow orders leads to the first of many disasters. He focuses on the faces of a family of hostages, paralyzed by the choice of sparing the lives of the enemy with the innocent captives or ensuring the safety of his comrades on the ground.
Along with the plot's steady torment, a collection of elements reels the audience into the action to astonishing effect. Shaky filming mimics the rumbling tank until it almost feels as if the theater seats have begun to move. The unsettling camera work is buttressed by an effective use of sound. Beyond a spare soundtrack of disconcerting single notes, we are assaulted with the noise of combat: the deathly growl of the tank, a helicopter descending overhead, a missile making contact with machinery.
Meanwhile, the camera tells a full story by simply zooming in on a pair of eyes. Shmuel's are pitiable and horrified, while a mother searching for her daughter appears dazed yet desperate. The eyes of a horse in the road, innards exposed, reveal the final moments of life as a tear begins to stream down the animal's face. The expression of the tank's ineffective commander, Assi, exposes the onset of shock. Dizzy and adrift, he begins swaying to music blaring outside the tank when the men end up in the wrong place.
While some moments tend toward the heavy-handed, the overall effect remains haunting. As chaos looms, Assi begins to shave -- a troubling, bizarre sight under the circumstances -- and orders his men to clean up the tank: "You can't run a war in this mess," he tells them.
But, really, you can't run a war without it.
Contains grisly war violence, strong language and brief nudity. In Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles.