Lebanon (2009) / War-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, sexual references and some nudity
Running time: 93 min.

Cast: Oshri Cohen, Yoav Donat, Michael Moshonov, Itay Tiran, Zohar Shtrauss, Reymond Amsalem
Director: Samuel Maoz
Screenplay: Samuel Maoz
Review published September 7, 2010

Set in June of 1982 during Israel's initial invasion of Lebanon, four Israeli soldiers in a tank are ordered into the enemy territory with only their scope to see what's going on in the outside world.  What they see makes them increasingly fearful, as they are unsure at every step if what they're doing is the right thing.  Are they targeting enemies that are actually innocent civilians?  Are the people outside who appear as harmless individuals actually mounting a surprise attack?  Do the men passing down orders to them have any real idea of what's really going on?  Are they actually stoking the fire of hatred that they're trying to stomp out by running roughshod over the people that may or may not have anything to do with the political conflict?

A claustrophobic war thriller told mostly within the confines of an Israeli tank's interior may not seem initially like a scintillating cinematic experience, but writer-director Samuel Maoz, who based the film on his own experiences, is able to utilize the film's limited scope to draw out the fear that living in cocoon of safety within a world of danger provides.  Although a film told about a specific war from a filmmaker whose nationality had been one of the participants of that war, Lebanon could be about nearly any war with an incursion into hostile territory featuring a tank.  The political implications are there, but Maoz's film is more about the soldier's perspective.  Confusion, paranoia, fright, gut-wrenching moral dilemmas -- these are the pervasive feelings that strike combatants during these invasions, as they only have the other inhabitants to rely on to keep their sanity, and none of them are particularly more well-informed than the other.

The interior setting of the tank exacerbates the feeling of danger and disgust, as the sweltering heat makes the men sweat and urinate (which they must do in a shared box), while the water is running out and all the men have to eat are salty croutons, furthering their dehydration.  The conditions begin to deteriorate, with grime, filth, and shell damage persistently growing.  An already tense and dour situation is further increased by visitors from the outside, from obtuse commanding officers, dubious allies, dead bodies, and prisoners of war.  And prisoners of war are nearly what the men become, as they traverse the enemy territory with sparse allies around them, in a jail cell of their own, with only their wits, a few shells, and a commander they have little faith in to guide them.  Meanwhile, we're along for the ride with the men, rarely seeing anything more than they see or knowing more than what they know (though there is a key scene spoken mostly in Arabic that sheds ominous light in a way the Israeli men aren't privy), as we can see the situation deteriorate and how it weighs heavy on these men who just want, more than anything, to go home.

Most of the action that we do see on the outside comes through the tank's gun sight.  In the use of this sight, Maoz employs a heavy dose of artistic license, as it s far too nimble and focused where the action is (i.e. right in front of the tank).  However, though it may play loose as a plot device, it does add to the surreal claustrophobia by only showing tiny pieces of the outside world at a time, usually concentrating on the most harrowing.  The sounds that emanate from the outside also increase the feeling of dread, as gunshots and blood-curdling screams fill the air with thick despair.

Lebanon isn't realistic in its portrayal of the particular war represented, but it effectively taps into the maddening confusion that is war itself, where death is always a moment away, and soldiers cling desperately to sanity after enduring sleepless nights, chokingly depressing conditions, and are asked to perform actions which fly against every instinct they've been taught about killing and the sanctity of innocent life.  It plays more like a very well-crafted experimental film than a straightforward epic war flick, so temper expectations of traditional fare.  For those looking for something different from the norm, particularly in how scary the arena of war truly is, Maoz makes up for the lack of emotional power, complex stratagems and blazing pyrotechnics with a tighter, more visceral punch delivered right to the gut.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2010 Vince Leo