Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 11, 2016 9:15 am 
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Scandinavian temperaments and the hard and soft rules of war

The Danish film that's a finalist for the Best Foreign Oscar is by Tobias Lindholm, whose 2012 A Hijacking blows the similar American version, Captain Philips (2013), out of the water because it has more perspective, going back and forth between the struggle with the Somali pirates and the ship and the shipping owners and managers negotiating and weighing options at home. This time the perspective is also there -- back and forth between a Danish unit commanding officer in Afghanistan, Claus M. Pedersen (the terrific Pilou Asbæk, subsequently a "Game of Thrones" battle warrior and star of all three of Lindholm's films so far), and his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) at home in Denmark struggling with three little kids -- and between the reality of soldiers on the ground and the legalities of the planners and legislators of international bodies. As I'm not the first to note, you will think right away of Susanne Bier's 2004 Brothers, a recent enough precedent of a Danish war in Afghanistan and and war back home film. But Lindholm doesn't focus on PTSD or complicated horrors at the front. The aim of the neutrally titled A War is to present a moral quandary. If the man does something in combat that's legally actionable, should he deny it so he can be with his family, who've lacked him for so long already? As has also been noted by others, this film doesn't take up the big question of whether these Danes need to be fighting in Afghanistan in the first place. It also does't ask whether the legalities Claus is accused of violating really make sense in a life-and-death combat situation. But even if it may seem a bit schematic, A War is deft and economical storytelling.

Real Afghans and real Danish soldiers who served in Afghanistan play subsidiary roles. Using cast and crew who served on his first two movies, Lindholm strives for a Dogme-like vérité in those Afghan segments and achieves a documentary-style realism. There's a thrilling combination of lightness and roughness about the battles shot by ace cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck compared to both old fashioned war movies and the the latest pumped-up American screen warfare (Peter Berg, Michael Bay). The line of the screenplay is clear and effective. A patrol stumbles on an an IED, a homemade bomb, and one of the men dies before they can get medical help. A Danish soldier of obvious Middle Eastern origin (Dulfi Al-Jabouri), who's called Lasse, freaks out at this: his friend died in his arms; and he begs to be sent home. But Claus can't do that. He just lets Lasse stay on base for two weeks. Later, Lasse is the one seriously wounded in the next big fracas, though he's saved, barely, and gets his trip home. Wounded in the neck, he sends them a film where he holds up jokey dialogue cards addressed to the company from his hospital bed, and the men applaud -- possibly the most original visual moment of the film.

To encourage the men, Claus goes back out on patrol with them: a fellow officer, also Middle Eastern, Najib Bisma (Dar Salim) thinks he's too gung-ho. We see locals using kids as shields while planting IED's. The friendly Afghans tell the Danes the Taliban come at night when their not there. An older man brings three kids to the base and begs to be taken in, or the kids at least, because his cooperation has led to Taliban death threats. Claus has to deny this request too, but promises his men will come out and protect them. In the event, when they do arrive they find the older Afghan and the kids all lying dead, killed execution-style. This outing is the more raw and dangerous one, the confrontation where Claus calls in a bomb on a house they call Compound 6 where he claims he has "PID" (positive identification of enemy presence) to protect the men, who're receiving fire from all sides, till a rescue helicopter comes in to get them all out and save Lasse's life.

In the contemporary style of cameras and recording devices everywhere there is full documentation of this battle and what Claus says before the bombing leads to him being sent home for trial. Eleven Afghans were killed in Compound 6, mostly children. The second half of the film is all set in Denmark, the last forty minutes focused on the trial. Isn't a trial a letdown after combat? It could be, especially given the matter-of-factness of the Danish-style military proceedings. This is certainly not The Caine Mutiny court-martial, a vivid cinematic memory of my youth. But trials are inherently dramatic. The female judge allows Claus freer rein than might be expected. Asbæk, who played a violent prisoner in R, Lindholm's debut feature, can be fiery, and anger when it flames out from a cold Scandinavian temperament burns with a harsher light. Regardless of what he said in the recordings, Claus declares that he had PID before he ordered the bombing, as his attorney Olsen (Søren Malling) has told him to, and if he's believed, he will be saved from four years in prison.

A War is a fine film. But as competition for the Best Foreign Oscar, we have to acknowledge that it treads some familiar territory, while the favorite, Lászlo Nemes' Son of Saul, with its tour-de-force depiction of Auschwitz, and likely runner-up Mustang, with its vibrant summery vision of young girls in revolt in provincial Turkey, pulls it down a peg or two.

A War/Krigen, 115 mins., debuted at Venice 5 Sept. 2015, appearing in three other international festivals. It opened in Denmark 10 Sept. and in the UK and Ireland 8 Jan. 2016. It opens in NYC at Landmark Sundance 12 Feb., subsequent Fridays in San Francisco and Berkeley.

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