Monday, August 30, 2010

Movie Review: Lebanon

Lebanon ***
Directed By:
Samuel Maoz.
Written By: Samuel Maoz.
Starring: Reymond Amsalem (Assna), Oshri Cohen (Herzel), Yoav Donat (Shmulik), Michael Moshonov (Yigal), Zohar Shtrauss (Gamil), Itay Tiran (Asi).

Watching Samuel Maoz Lebanon, I found it impossible not to think of Wolfgang Peterson’s Das Boot. That 1982 masterpiece was a war movie that took place almost entirely aboard a German U boat during WWII, and Peterson made the most of the claustrophobic atmosphere. Maoz film is about a different war, in a different decade in a different part of the world, but it reminded me of that film. Aside from the opening and closing shots of the movie, Lebanon takes place entirely inside an Israeli tank during the 1982 war with Lebanon. We only see the country the way the men in the tank see it – through their gun sights.

The movie begins when the new gunner assigned to the tank opens the hatch and drops in. He is joining a trio of men – an unsure commander officer, the constantly bitching loader who like Rodney Dangerfield feels he never gets any respect, and a driver who is just trying to keep the peace and survive his tour. For most of the movie, it is just these four men in the tank. Occasionally, the hatch opens and their commanding officer comes in to yell at them, or to drop in the body of a fallen solider before it can be airlifted out, or to store a prisoner, etc.

The movie is episodic in nature. There are long stretches of calmness, where the men just talk and bitch at each other, followed by intense war sequences where the gunner seems constantly frozen – he is finding out that shooting at people is a hell of a lot harder than shooting at barrels – and this doesn’t go away even after his inaction results in one of the men on the outside being killed. He finds he can only shoot with his eyes closed.

Lebanon must have been an extremely difficult movie for Maoz to make from a technical standpoint. After all, how can you make the interior of a dank, dark tank offset by shots through a gun sight cinematic enough to keep the audience’s attention? But somehow Maoz succeeds. The movie is a triumph of direction and the movie is not nearly as static or stagy than you expect it to be.

If there is a problem with the movie it’s that the characters never really rise above the level of clich├ęs. Maoz, who also wrote the screenplay, establishes their basic outline early in the film, and they never really progress from there. On one hand, this is effective, because after all how much soul searching can you realistically expect during the numerous firefights in the film. On another, since the characters in the tank remain cookie cutters, and everyone outside not even that, it becomes somewhat hard to truly care about their fate.

Any movie about a war involving Israel is undoubtedly going to be political, but Maoz never beats you over the head with his message – in fact you never really get the sense that he has a message at all. He has the gunner be a sympathetic guy – a man who finds it hard to kill others, and in particular gets emotional when his firing could mean the loss of innocent lives. Yet the commander who drops in on them occasionally is much more of a hard liner – a man who says that this is war, and in war people die. And when we see members under his command die, it is hard not to see it from his point of view – even if at times, it is clear that what the Israelis are doing could constitute a war crime if anyone looked into that closely.

Lebanon is a fascinating movie – one that is political, but not overtly so, but rather one that simply wants to give the audience an idea of what it must be like to fight a war in a tank. There is not right or wrong, you do what you do to survive. On that level, the movie works.

1 comment:

  1. I just got this on Blu-Ray the other day.
    I loved The Hurt Locker, and have loved war films since.
    Thanks for the review!