Writer-director Tobias Lindholm knows how to keep a human perspective in his storytelling, no matter how outsized the drama or the dilemmas facing his characters. His 2012 film “A Hijacking” hit U.S. theaters at around the same time as the similarly-themed “Captain Phillips,” and the contrast between the two was a telling one, with Lindholm’s film subtly avoiding Hollywood bombast while still capturing the tension and terror of the situation.
Lindholm returns with “A War,” currently nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and as an exploration of tough decisions and consequences set against the backdrop of the conflict in Afghanistan, it empathizes with the bravery and the sacrifices of its characters without the hoo-ah of a movie like “American Sniper.” (And if nothing else, “A War” is a potent reminder to U.S. audiences that we aren’t fighting the international War on Terror singlehandedly; other countries are stepping up, and suffering, just like we are.)
And while most Hollywood movies are so afraid of moral ambiguity that you’d think the old-school Production Code was in effect – the drunken pilot’s hairpin, third-act redemption in “Flight” comes to mind – here’s a story that eschews easy answers and forces audiences to examine their own consciences while the characters do likewise.
Claus (Pilou Asbæk, “Lucy”) is a CO in Afghanistan; on his phone calls to his long-suffering but resilient wife Maria (Tuva Novotny), you can tell he’s trying to be a good father long-distance to three children who miss him, but he also needs to take care of the men in his command, and near as we can tell, he’s a good leader. When an IED attack takes out a young soldier, Claus starts going on patrol with the men in an attempt to raise morale.
On a mission to drive the Taliban out of a nearby village, Claus and his squad discover that a family they’d come to know – who’d already been turned down for refuge at the military base camp – have been slaughtered. Under fire, and needing an immediate medevac helicopter for one of his injured men, Claus makes a spontaneous battlefield decision that has major repercussions, ones so serious that he’s soon called home to face charges in a military tribunal.
“A War” refuses to decide for us whether or not Claus’ actions were excusable, or whether the requirements of complete honesty under oath outweigh the long-term consequences that a prison sentence would have on Claus’ already-fragile family. This is a movie that has nothing but understanding and support for the impossible tasks faced by members of the military and their families, but it also presents ethical questions that have no easy answers.
Lindholm’s style involves plenty of showing and not much telling, meaning that we get to understand characters and situations without having to sit through a lot of exposition-dump dialogue. He’s helped immeasurably in this department by a talented cast — particularly the extraordinary Asbæk, whose expressive eyes convey any number of conflicting emotions — and cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck (“A Hijacking,” “Borgen”), whose generally unfussy camerawork makes the hand-held shooting of the battle sequences all the more disorienting and adrenaline-packed.
It’s not called “War,” which would be too presumptuously all-inclusive, or “The War,” which would be too specific — it’s just “A War,” one that’s similar to the ones that have come before and, sadly, will continue to happen in the future.