Take a Drink: for each patrol
Take a Drink: for portentous decisions
Take a Drink: whenever the kids remind you why kids suck
Take a Drink: for cigarettes
Take a Drink: whenever you hear “PID”
Do a Shot: for moral grey areas that you can’t reduce to black and white yourself
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
One of the very best wartime documentaries, and one of the best documentaries, period, of the last decade was Armadillo, which focused on a forward operating base and its soldiers as they struggled with boredom and flashes of harrowing violence. You may be assuming these were Americans, but there are a lot more nationalities taking part in this War, including the focus of this doc, the Danish.
A War is a fictional film following a very similar group of Danish peacekeepers in very similar pursuits, until their commander (Pilou Asbaek) makes a split second decision in the heat of fire that lands him on trial for War Crimes back in his native land.
A War will grab you with its aesthetics (Magnus Nordenhof Jonck’s camerawork is simply outstanding), then embroil you in its narrative complexities. The first act of the film is as visceral a war film as you’ll find. The violence is sudden, unflinching, and brutally gory, and full of a chaos that provokes these men to helpless breakdowns and momentary lapses in judgment, momentary breaks of protocol. While at first you think you’ve found yourself in another impressively immersive military drama, what this section is really about is that protocol, and it plays like a thriller as you wait for it to be broken, and hope against hope that the consequences aren’t too severe for these “good men” when it is.
The real tools of Modern War.
Asbaek, who is poised to take Hollywood by storm, is simply excellent in his portrayal of a commander who cares deeply about his men, even volunteering to take one shook up soldier’s place in effect and personally lead the next few patrols to boost the morale of the rest of his unit. It is during one of these patrols where we get the first test of his handling of protocol, as an Afghan family begs to be let into the compound for the night after Taliban demands the father join their ranks… or else. Later Asbaek is forced again to choose to follow protocol, under heavy fire and with that same shell-shocked soldier now bleeding out on the ground, as to whether or not to call down air support on the family compound where he believes the barrage is coming from, despite not having PID (Positive Identification). The film’s, and his, soul rests on his decision in each.
I won’t go to much farther into the plot to preserve its turns and surprises, but I will say that the courtroom portions are every bit as gripping as the action scenes. However, the film’s greatness lies in the questions it forces you to answer- or ignore. Is this the story of a hero getting his due? Or a story of a miscarriage of justice? Are both possible? What would you do in his situation, and how comfortable would you be with the consequences of your decisions? At what point, despite your best intentions, do those consequences change you from “a good person” into something else? And finally, even as a soldier, if you know your loved ones are safe a continent away, just how much do you really understand of war, and just how much right do you have to be a participant in it at all?
The script is almost too meticulously put together. All of the dominoes of the plot are set up a bit too tidily, and it’s hard in retrospect to find any of them to be surprising nor unconventional. For example, Asbaek’s defense attorney is jussst the right side of comically corrupt, as if the film is trying to give you a hint as to the direction you should be looking in. Making him just another well-meaning servant to the machine would have been a much more subtle but honest thing to do. That the film works as well as it does regardless almost saves this beer- almost.
A War is fascinating because it holds up a mirror for you to examine your attitudes towards foreign wars and Western society’s place in it. You can choose to take a look and examine where your prejudices fall. Or you can choose not to, and keep marching in lockstep, whether you acknowledge you are or not.