Mark Reviews Movies

A WAR

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tobias Lindholm

Cast: Pilou Asbæk, Tuva Novotny, Dar Salim, Søren Malling, Charlotte Munck, Alex Høgh Andersen, Dulfi Al-Jabouri, Jakob Frølund, Phillip Sem Dambæk

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some war related images)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 2/12/16 (limited); 2/26/16 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 25, 2016

The central concerns of Tobias Lindholm's A War involve the impossible decisions of soldiers in battle, especially when it comes to the idea of the rules of war. The concept, the movie seems to argue, is intrinsically paradoxical.

The rules are necessary but absurd. They are the only thing that keep a soldier civilized as they fight and kill. These rules serve to protect civilians while potentially putting soldiers in danger. They limit how much a soldier can do to help an innocent in cases when that innocent person needs more, contradicting the entire rationale for the soldier being there in the first place. These rules are an inherent good, but amidst the inhumanity and chaos of war, they will seem like the least and worst thing about which to worry.

Taking the movie at face value, it would be fair to argue that Lindholm agrees with the first part of that previous statement, albeit strictly on a theoretical level. The filmmaker's heart is with the second part of that statement.

We can gather this because the movie only makes the first part of the argument verbally. There's a character in the second half of the movie who exists solely to make such proclamations. Even then, the character does so while pointing out that, while failing to live up to the rules is not excusable, it is understandable because of the chaotic nature of battle.

The real argument here is that war is hell, and because of that, mistakes are made. The errors in judgment can have deadly consequences, but they are, more or less, unavoidable. That's the argument that Lindholm makes on a visceral, emotional level, and as a result, that's the argument that sticks. The other side of it is better left to the people who don't face such challenges—the ones who can sit back and ponder the bigger questions in comfort. Those folks don't have to worry about a rocket-propelled grenade heading directly toward you and the men with whom you're fighting. Who, really, can argue against that?

That's the problem, and it's one that Lindholm never really addresses. There is another side to the decision that serves as the climax to the movie's first half, a dread-inducing portrait of a group of the daily routine of Danish soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan. That side—the innocent casualties of a war of which they wanted no part—does not have its say in the matter. Lindholm tries, but the impact of that side simply isn't felt in the same way the life-or-death scenarios in which these soldiers find themselves are felt.

In Afghanistan, Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) is the commander of a company of soldiers, tasked with making daily patrols through a local province to protect the population from any Taliban fighters who might be in the area. When a member of his company is killed, Claus decides to join the patrols in order to boost morale.

The decisions on those patrols are immediate and trying. The company comes across a remote-detonated grenade along the side of a road, where children are playing only about 50 meters away. The soldiers set up an outlook post, with a sniper at the ready, to wait for the Taliban fighter who placed the explosive, but when he does arrive, he takes one of the children to use as human shield in the event that he is being watched.

While searching the nearby village, the soldiers help a local family whose daughter has suffered a burn. Later, the family arrives at the company's base of command, seeking shelter after the Taliban has threatened to kill them for cooperating with the soldiers. To take the family in would go against the company's protocol, but leaving them on their own to be murdered by the Taliban would go against the soldiers' primary purpose—to protect people just like this family.

The pressure begins to take its toll on Claus. He's losing sleep, and his subordinates are noticing it. Meanwhile, back in Denmark, Claus' wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) struggles to raise the couple's three children on her own.

The turning point is an ambush in the Afghan village. It is a sequence of utter chaos, with combatants firing from potentially any direction and no one able to see where the threat is. What happens in the midst of that firefight brings the movie back to Denmark, where a tribunal tries to piece together the facts of what should be an open-and-shut case against a soldier who clearly broke the rules.

Does that really mean anything? That seems to be question posed by the remainder of the movie, which follows the court proceedings with the detachment one expects to find under the circumstances and moments of doubt on the part of the soldier, who knows what happened and is trying to weigh his duty as a soldier and his obligation on the home front. If he fulfills one, he is failing the other.

This isn't quite the moral dilemma that Lindholm supposes it to be, although it's not because the scenario itself is lacking in that department. The problems of A War are primarily ones of in the way he frames this situation. There are vital questions here, but from the perspective the movie takes, those questions are left to be grappled with later.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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