The Academy Awards do a lot of things to the film release schedule, but one of the more useful things it does is bring a handful of foreign films stateside each year because they end up in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The Academy has a strange and sometimes infuriating process for picking the nominees in that category which involves countries submitting films to be considered by a committee of Academy voters (often elderly ones with time to watch all of them) that often has very different ideas of what belongs among the nominees than the critical community. I used to hate this, but lately I’ve kind of come to terms with it in that it does occasionally lead to some interesting discoveries that the festival scene didn’t bring attention to and every once in a while a gem slips through (see 2002 winner Nowhere in Africa). This year two of the five nominees (Hungary’s Son of Saul and Turkey by way of France’s Mustang) were fairly popular with critics and arthouse audiences and I liked both of them a lot, the other three come a bit more from the fringes. Two of them (Columbia’s Embrace the Serpent and Jordan’s Theeb) have not had a theatrical release in my area yet but one of them did manage to open near me so I thought I’d check it out.
Denmark’s A War is about a platoon of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan and specifically about their commanding officer Claus M. Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) who is known to go out in the field more than most people of his rank. The film cuts between his military exploits and those of his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) back in Denmark who is raising his three children. As the film begins it seems like a fairly straightforward “tour of duty” movie where stress builds and horrors of war and uncovered, but then it takes a turn about halfway through when a mission goes wrong and Pedersen makes a decision under duress that leaves a number of civilians dead. Pedersen feels fully justified in his action but is soon investigated and charged with a war crime. He returns to Denmark to face these charges that could end his career and land him in prison.
A War was directed by a guy named Tobias Lindholm, who rose to prominence a couple of years ago with a film called A Hijacking (the guy is clear a fan of indefinite articles). That movie was often compared with the film Captain Phillips as both films covered a similar situation but Lindholm’s movie took a notably rawer and less “Hollywood” approach about the sometimes banal realities of hostage negotiation. Given the reputation of that film I was almost expecting A War to be almost a Dogma-95 take on the war film and was actually surprised to find the film’s style to be as palatable as it was. The film is certainly lower budget than a Hollywood war film, but it doesn’t look like it was shot on a shoestring either and Lindholm isn’t using any sort of minimalist handheld aesthetic and his screenplay isn’t filled with artistic pauses or meta-elements. In other words, the filmmaking is straightforward and isn’t really in opposition to the usual rules of how to film a drama.
So it would seem that Lindholm is interested in giving the film a simple style so as to get out of the way and let the ideas play out, but those had better be pretty damn interesting ideas and I was actually kind of disappointed at how simple the court case at the center of the film was. In the moment the decision that Pedersen made seemed pretty simple: terrorists were shooting at his men, he didn’t know exactly where they were, so he calls in an airstrike to clear out everything in the vicinity of the gunfire. In essence his sin was to value the lives of his men (people who signed up for this dangerous adventure) over the lives of innocent bystanders. That’s an interesting quagmire. That is not, however, what is the question at the center of the court trial. The issue there is quite simple: was there PID (Positive Identification) that the shots were coming from the building he ordered the airstrike on. If he did have PID on the building and there were still civilians in it that is immaterial, if he didn’t have PID on the building and there weren’t civilians that would still be a breach of protocol (albeit one that likely wouldn’t have gone to trial). So, most of the debates that happen in this courtroom end up being factual rather than moral in nature, which to be fair is probably truer to life, but it still seems like a not overly dramatic case to hang a film on.
So, what we’re left with is a moderately interesting case told in a moderately interesting way and… that just doesn’t seem like enough to really make a movie like this stand out. It lacks the heightened drama of something like A Few Good Men or the institutional critique of something like Breaker Morant. The point is, I suppose, to present something a bit more real and down to earth than those movies but if that was the plan I’m not really sure that Lindholm went far enough. This seems less like some kind of radical work of realism and more like a conventional drama that simply isn’t very dramatic. It’s certainly not a bad movie mind you, it’s decently well told and does leave you with a few interesting things to think about. The acting is good, there are certainly some well rendered scenes, but it definitely isn’t the best of what world cinema has to offer. Of course sometimes straightforward movies told in simple ways about seemingly important subject matter is sometimes what the Academy goes for (just look at this year’s best picture winner) but it usually isn’t what makes your movie something people remember after a while.