Mark Reviews Movies


3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Samuel Maoz

Cast: Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Strauss, Dudu Tassa, Ashraf Barhom

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing bloody war violence, language including sexual references, and some nudity)

Running Time: 1:33

Release Date: 8/6/10 (limited); 8/13/10 (wider); 8/27/10 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 26, 2010

Not only are the tank's crew of Lebanon isolated from battle, they are also in a way detached from it. This behemoth is designed so that nothing can get in. The ideal is that bullets cannot penetrate it, a rocket might cripple but not entirely destroy it, and it will continue to move no matter what. "The tank," a plaque inside reads, "is only iron," while "Men are steel."

The soldiers inside are stronger than their equipment, the saying implies. It does not, though, take into account that things can get inside the soldier. The scope of the tank's gun is impartial; the man looking through it is not. A commander may order the tank's crew to fire at an approaching car, but he cannot see the driver's face like the gunner inside the tank can.

Lebanon is war as seen through the sights of a gun. Writer/director Samuel Maoz (himself a veteran, whose experiences during the First Lebanon War inform the events of the story) is also objective. It observes horrors, hints at (but never shows) possible breaches of international law, and avoids politics. There is no scene or text explaining the reasons for the war. It is simply happening, and here are the men in the middle of it. We watch with the claustrophobic tension of being confined to a tight, dark space and the uncomfortable knowledge that what and who we see through that viewfinder can be destroyed in a heartbeat with the pull of a trigger.

It is 1982, and Shmulik (Yoav Donat) arrives to join the rest of the crew in the early hours of the morning to serve as the tank's gunner. Also on board are Assi (Itay Tiran), the tank's commander, Hertzl (Oshri Cohen), the loader, and Yigal (Michael Moshonov), the pilot. Shmulik is new to the group and quickly catches on to the dynamics when Hertzl complains about Assi's orders for him to stay on watch while the rest get some sleep before they move out in a few hours. The conditions inside the tank are already so oppressive that it seems only a matter of common decency that Assi does not add more to it with an authoritarian command style.

There is also enough of that outside in the form of Jamil (Zohar Strauss), the unit's commander on the ground. We assume he is in control. He knows the mission. He knows the politics (There is an international ban on phosphorous rounds, so they will simply not call them phosphorous rounds). He knows it will be a walk in the park for the most part.

Then it is not. They enter a town, devastated by earlier aerial attacks, and run into unexpected resistance.

Episodes of the crew's experiences compose the narrative. Shmulik hesitates when ordered to fire on an approaching car with hostiles, and he pays for it. He listens—refusing to look through the scope—as a firefight ensues, finally watching as an Israeli soldier breathes his last. There's no way for a helicopter to come in, so the body is kept in the safest place available: inside the tank.

The interior of the tank may be safe, and that might be the most complimentary thing to be said about it. It is dark. Exhaust fumes take up the air. Cigarette butts and residual water gather on the floor. When the crew rests, they are limited to their seats. It is confined and loud. Production designer Ariel Roshko and cinematographer Giora Bejach reproduce this crushing environment with evocative and unsettling results. The camera does not shake, but the tank and its occupants do. It does not leave the tank, save for two shots, the first and last ones. The only glimpses of the outside world are through Shmulik's scope or a few, blinding moments of sunlight pouring in when the hatch opens.

Through the latter, we see Jamil come into the tank to passive-aggressively scold Shmulik for not firing and warn Assi of breaking orders if it happens again. This is, at first, a man wholly dedicated to military regulations, until Hertzl decides to listen in on Jamil's radio communications back to base. It is then we realize that the Jamil is barely in control and mainly worries about saving his own career and reputation than his men. Also through the hatch, the dead Israeli soldier is lifted out by helicopter, fulfilling the radio codename for the fallen, "angel," and a Syrian POW (Dudu Tassa) is brought to the only place he can be detained. A Phalangist (Ashraf Barhom)—local opposition—makes sure none of the Israelis can speak Arabic before he threatens the prisoner with torture.

Through the view of the tank's turret, Shmulik witnesses a conversation trapped in limbo, as an old man sits at a table across from his dead friend. There's a harrowing standoff between the tank and combatants holding a family hostage in a blown-out apartment. If anyone on the ground can see that a young girl is captive is unclear, but Shmulik can. Whether he fires or not, the result will almost more than likely be death for everyone in the apartment.

Amidst this are brief moments of humanity. A soldier covers a woman with a blanket after ripping off her dress, which has caught fire. Hertzel reveals an erotic story from his youth that blends sex and death on its own and then further in the context of the telling. The film's climactic moment is not a firefight, battle, or verbal dissection of a lesson, but a minor act of kindness toward the POW, aiding with a basic bodily function.

It is simple, common decency for another human being, as uncomfortable as it may be at times, that results. Lebanon understands that it is a small step but also an essential one.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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