“Lebanon,” written and directed by Samuel Maoz, is the latest in a line of Israeli movies, along with “Beaufort” and “Waltz With Bashir,” dealing with wartime conflict, remorse, and retribution. Like “Bashir,” the film was made by an active participant in the war with Lebanon, and some of its power no doubt derives from this immersion.
But it would be misleading to place too much emphasis on Maoz’s background. For one thing, great war films – most of them, in fact – have been made by directors who were never close to a battlefield. Probably the greatest American novel about war, “The Red Badge of Courage,” was written by Stephen Crane before he ever saw a battle zone.
There’s a bit of “The Red Badge of Courage” in “Lebanon,” which is set on the first day of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and is shot almost entirely from inside the cramped quarters of an Israeli tank. One of the soldiers, the highly agitated driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov), has to face a similar reckoning as the young soldier in Crane’s novel. Under life-threatening attack, how courageous will he be?
Maoz may have drawn on his own experiences in the making of this film, but he’s also drawn on quite a few tropes from standard war
movies. The claustrophobic dankness of the tank’s interior seems modeled on the submarine from “Das Boot.” The four soldiers inside the tank, all in their 20s, are characterized only enough to set them apart from one another. We never learn much about them beyond their defining traits: fear, bravery, cynicism, gallows humor. This is typically the way American war movies, particularly the ones made during World War II, display their wares, and it’s reductive of the true (and incredibly messy) experience of battle.
The shallow characterizations are especially jarring because, for an hour and a half, we are cooped up with these guys. The only window into the outside world is through the viewfinder of the new gunner, Shmulik (Yoav Donat). Every once in a while someone drops into the tank from the outside world – most conspicuously the martinet Israeli commander Gamil (Zohar Shtrauss) and later, a Syrian hostage (Dudu Tassa), and the fanatic Phalangist (Ashraf Barhom), who gleefully threatens him with imminent torture.
These drop-ins, like much of the drama inside the tank, have the effect of theatrical set pieces. In fact, “Lebanon” would probably work as well, or better, as a stage piece (though I’m not sure who its audience would be – fans of Sartre’s “No Exit” maybe?).
The straightforwardness of “Lebanon” stands in stark contrast to “Waltz With Bashir,” where director Ari Folman employed animation and a mind-bending mood-memory structure to pull us right inside the otherworldly horrors of war. In addition to being emotionally devastating, that film was also a furious intellectual argument about the rightness and wrongness of that particular intervention.
“Lebanon” takes a far less particularized view of war – a supposedly “universal” view. But just because these young men are experiencing what, in a sense, all young men in war experience does not make it “better” than movies that take a sharper political stand. In some ways, it makes it more generic.
Despite the film’s staginess and conventionality, Maoz does a powerful job capturing the countenances of his soldiers in resonating close-ups. These men have that awful young-old look that you often see in wartime photos and documentaries of raw recruits. The Israeli soldiers in “Lebanon” look right at us and they seem both beseeching and accusatory. They are trapped inside something that is far more harrowing than a tank.
Rated R for disturbing bloody war violence, language including sexual references, and some nudity.
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