Critics Corner: A WAR

The Danes think enough of Tobias Lindholm’s A War to nominate it for best foreign-language film in this year’s Oscars. See how Bay Area reviewers Daniel Barnes and Richard von Busack view Lindholm’s “… look at the burden of leadership and the psychological toll of living through hell” in this week’s Critics Corner.

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What Did You Do in A WAR, Daddy?

by Daniel Barnes

Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm’s 2012 Somali pirate movie A Hijacking wasn’t seen by most American audiences until late 2013, when it invited easy comparisons to that year’s Best Picture nominee Captain Phillips. Eventually nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, A Hijacking came off as the process-oriented, human-drama flipside to the action-oriented thriller of Captain Phillips, and Lindholm’s use of handheld cameras and long takes felt like the restrained version of Greengrass’ jittery vérité of excess.

Lindholm’s follow-up film is A War, and once again this feels like the process-oriented, human- drama flipside to the more action-oriented War on Terror films like The Hurt Locker and American Sniper. Like A Hijacking, A War is a tightly wound, no-frills look at the burden of leadership and the psychological toll of living through hell. A War even reunites the three main actors from A Hijacking, with Pilou Asbæk starring here as Claus, the commander of a Danish army regiment serving in Afghanistan.

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Denmark’s A WAR provides polar opposite to AMERICAN SNIPER

by Richard von Busack

The indefinite article in the title of A War by Tobias Lindholm seems to suggest that all wars are the same — war is always hell, just as war is often dull. In this view, Afghanistan was not especially different from any other conflict. In the battle scenes of this Oscar-nominated Danish film are moments of routine, of rifles being slowly aimed, of murmuring numbers into walkie-talkies. This patrolling is interrupted by surprise moments of terror. Then comes the usual fog over judgment, collateral damage, and the same inability to express the inconceivable situation on the ground to civilians back home.

The Danish role in Operation Enduring Freedom deserves more commemoration. They were part of the NATO troops patrolling the enormous opium-growing region of Helmand Province. The peace-keeping Danes suffered highly disproportionate casualties, compared to their small numbers on the ground.

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Images courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

What Did You Do in A WAR, Daddy?

by Daniel Barnes

Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm’s 2012 Somali pirate movie A Hijacking wasn’t seen by most American audiences until late 2013, when it invited easy comparisons to that year’s Best Picture nominee Captain Phillips. Eventually nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, A Hijacking came off as the process-oriented, human-drama flipside to the action-oriented thriller of Captain Phillips, and Lindholm’s use of handheld cameras and long takes felt like the restrained version of Greengrass’ jittery vérité of excess.

Lindholm’s follow-up film is A War, and once again this feels like the process-oriented, human- drama flipside to the more action-oriented War on Terror films like The Hurt Locker and American Sniper. Like A Hijacking, A War is a tightly wound, no-frills look at the burden of leadership and the psychological toll of living through hell. A War even reunites the three main actors from A Hijacking, with Pilou Asbæk starring here as Claus, the commander of a Danish army regiment serving in Afghanistan.

awarart2If A War doesn’t work as well as A Hijacking, it’s because the ground it covers feels a little more familiar, a little more stock. It begins as a fairly conventional battlefront-vs.- home front war film, with Claus playing father figure to his shaky soldiers while his wife Maria raises three kids back home, and then it turns into a fairly conventional courtroom drama/morality play. The voyeurism and exploitation of Brian De Palma’s underrated Redacted was a far better fit for this sort of material than Lindholm’s tasteful moral relativism.

A War opens with a sudden and gory death, as a soldier trips an explosive device and blows off most of his lower half, and the camera doesn’t flinch from the bloody carnage. One of the other soldiers becomes traumatized by the incident, and the protective Claus takes his place on patrol. The soldiers are constantly sent out in harm’s way, never quite sure who they’re fighting and who they’re helping, forced to determine “hostile intent” through the scope of a sniper’s rifle.

By comparison, scenes of Maria dealing with their bratty middle child or rushing their youngest to the emergency room feel like mere formalities, placeholders for an emotional payoff. Tuva Novotny does a fine job as Maria, and the performances of the three children feel very natural, and yet they all only exist as bait for the central storyline. In A Hijacking, the split narrative between the hostages and the negotiators fed into competing notions of responsibility and leadership, but everything here feeds into Claus’ moral deadline.

awarart5The one aspect of A War that works indisputably well is the lead performance of Asbæk as Claus, his eyes perpetually worried but determined, his face seemingly trapped between a half-smile and a horrified grimace. Claus is stuck between sheltering his men and serving the Afghani civilians he’s there to protect, and worries that he’s failing at both tasks, and Asbæk perfectly captures that low boil of certain dread.

When the men become trapped in a firefight with an unseen enemy, Claus makes a rash decision that endangers civilian lives and brings him under military prosecution. The film pretty much writes itself from there, as Claus returns home to a trial, and experiences the expected dilemmas about lying on the stand to protect his family vs. owning up to his mistakes and going to prison. As with most of A War, these overly familiar scenes are only kept alive by strong performances, and given weight by Lindholm’s judgmental restraint.


Daniel BarnesDaniel Barnes is a film critic for the Sacramento News and Review and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. Along with Darcey Self-Barnes, he’s been writing about craft beer for Eat Drink Films in the column (and blog) His & Hers Beer Notes.

 

 

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Denmark’s A WAR provides polar opposite to AMERICAN SNIPER

by Richard von Busack

The indefinite article in the title of A War by Tobias Lindholm seems to suggest that all wars are the same — war is always hell, just as war is often dull. In this view, Afghanistan was not especially different from any other conflict. In the battle scenes of this Oscar-nominated Danish film are moments of routine, of rifles being slowly aimed, of murmuring numbers into walkie-talkies. This patrolling is interrupted by surprise moments of terror. Then comes the usual fog over judgment, collateral damage, and the same inability to express the inconceivable situation on the ground to civilians back home.

The Danish role in Operation Enduring Freedom deserves more commemoration. They were part of the NATO troops patrolling the enormous opium-growing region of Helmand Province. The peace-keeping Danes suffered highly disproportionate casualties, compared to their small numbers on the ground.

They did the frustrating business of patrolling by day against an insurgency that returns by night. (In one scene in A War, Afghan villagers beg the soldiers to remain with them after nightfall.)  Officially recording their kills on cellphone, and Skyping with their families back home, these troops are only 4,000 miles and four time zones away from Denmark. And they weren’t there in the spirit of 9/11 revenge. (A War is the polar opposite of American Sniper.)

awarart4Lindholm shuttles between the battle front and the home front, where Claus’ wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) is taking care of her rambunctious children (“You can look forward to caring for these little brats soon,” she tells him during a phone call.) Lindholm insists on the calm humanity of these warriors, even as the mission decays around them. What manner of soldiers are these? One of them is nicknamed “Butcher.” It turns out this is just because he’s from a family of beef butchers back home.

Claus Pederson (the richly bearded Pilou Asbaek, sort of a more depressed version of Ewan McGregor) is the commanding officer of a group that we see diminished by an IED right after the opening scenes. Pinned down by fire during an ambush, with a man wounded in the throat, Pederson calls in for air support even without a “PID” — code for an actual visual of unfriendly soldiers. The helicopter strike kills several civilians. Due to a breach of this rule of engagement, he’s called back to Denmark to explain his decision to a prosecutor, with the chance of a long prison sentence for killing children and women.

awarart6This treatment of a soldier’s journey uses actual Danish army vets for the cast, but it’s cloaked and small scale, like the Dogme 95 experimental films made by Lindholm’s frequent collaborator Thomas Vinterberg (who has moved on to bigger things with Far From the Madding Crowd). There are also the somber, modulated emotions between the returned warrior and his wife, with the attendant failure of words. Claus cuts a discussion of the war short when he’s standing outdoors with his wife; he claims he’s too cold for conversation. And he later makes the old soldier’s complaint, “You can’t imagine what it’s like out there.”

As Maria, Novotny has a fine relaxed grin. This mom is a smoker, so we have to admire her spirit of risk; she has to pressure her husband to think about edging away from the truth: “What about the children, what about me? You killed eight children but you have living children.” Lines like that are evidence of a streak of blatancy that injures this movie.  Another blatant line, from Claus about his soldier: “The boys just lost a friend. No wonder they’re upset.” Almost any director from Samuel Fuller down could express this idea more clearly in pictures instead of words. The humanism of the film goes a long way, but so does its ineffectual qualities. The movie is a conversation stopper — it drifts into silence and peters out.


RichardvonBusackRichard von Busack is a staff writer at San Jose’s Metro Newspapers. He’s the author of The Art of Megamind and has written for Entertainment Weekly, n +1 and cinematical.com. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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