Oshri Cohen, Zohar Shtrauss, Michael Moshonov, Itay Tiran, Yoav Donat, Reymond Amsalem
(Sony Pictures Classic; US theatrical: 15 Sep 2009 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 8 Oct 2010 (General release); 2010)
War is not all battles and bullets. It’s not solely search and destroy or the horrors of fierce hand to hand. Instead, it’s often the boredom and banality of being a cog in a larger military machine. It’s also the angst of never knowing when the call will come, and the test of one’s make-up and mantle when, indeed, the orders are given. Now take the entire terrifying and angst driven experience in put it into a metal box no bigger than a large foot locker, force three other men to share the cramped quarters with you, and limit your view of the upcoming shit storms to a gun turret or a small slash of window. Such was life for an Israeli tank gunner and his comrades during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and the premise for the intriguing film by Samuel Maoz.
We meet new gunner Shmulik as he’s being reassigned to the already established team of driver Yigal, loader Hertzel, and officer Assi. Receiving conflicting orders from their current commander, they find themselves traveling into a bombed out shell of a city, using their artillery might to support the sudden attacks and ambushes. Along the way, Shmulik freezes up and fails to fire. As a result, a fellow Israeli soldier is killed, and the crew is then taken with transporting the body for airlifting. Soon, they are also in charge of holding a Syrian POW of interest to both their government and the Lebanese Maronite Catholic Phalangists allied with the forces. Chaos eventually controls the situation as communications are cut and the grueling truth of the hot, hermitically sealed existence inside the tank takes its toll.
Lebanon is a strong statement against the futility of fighting an enemy while locked inside a determined deathtrap of questionable safety and security. The gimmick of keeping our POV locked carefully within the rattling metal carcass of a tank is interesting - at first. It’s reminiscent of the claustrophobic conceit used by Wolfgang Peterson in his far more action oriented Das Boot. Maoz isn’t out to make a thriller or some manner of action film, however. Instead, he wants to use the tight quarters and frayed nerves to heighten a level of tension already tweaked by the ever-present possibility of death. Characterization is not the film’s strong point - Shmulik is weak willed and high strung, Hertzel is a troublemaker, Yidal is sensitive, thinking of his mother while Assi is the kind of leader who is destined to snap under pressure. Instead, Lebanon goes with the visual stunt solely - and struggles on occasion because of it.
As with the rash of found footage films in horror, the use of a limited perspective literally lessens our ability to see the big picture. It’s inherent in the style. So Maoz has to do a lot of expanded exposition in a very small space. Sometimes, he gets its right (the POW sequences sizzle with suspense). At other instances, we feel manipulated by both the material and the manner in which it is presented. This is especially true of a prolonged attack on an apartment building which results in the psychological defilement of a Lebanese woman. As she struggles through the rubble, dress torn to the point where she is practically naked, Maoz wants us to feel the shame his soldiers do. But since we are locked in the belly of this smoke-belching beast, we are kept at arm’s length. It definitely deadens the potential.
In fact, one could easily argue that Lebanon is all possibility and little payoff. We expect the moments of interpersonal tension, the truth about playing reaper in a reality besieged on all sides by similar angels of death, and even though there is a bit of formula to these confronts, they tend to work. What’s lacking is a sense of strategic danger, of knowing the odds of a mission and the repercussions of failure. Little is explained to our tank crew. They take orders, bark at each other within the confusion, and feel less and less heroic as things fall apart. But the bigger problem still exists - what is the goal? If it’s merely to provide back-up for the ground troops, we get it. If there is something larger or more meaningful, it gets lost inside the sweaty, oily spaces within the tank.
Unfortunately, uniqueness can only provide so much. Because we “see” everything through the gun turret, Maoz is forced to use the device in improbable, illogical ways. Would a soldier really survey a landscape looking for moments of meaning? Would he focus on a single stripped woman or a man begging for his life when all around him a call to duty is being determined? Dramatic license if perfectly acceptable, but it does countermand your desire for abject realism. And again, being so locked in to one design, to have it determine your every artistic move may seem inventive and evocative, but it does have its clear logistical and narrative limits.
For the most part, Lebanon leaves us wanting more (especially a foreign audience unfamiliar with the ins and outs of this part of Israeli history). Maoz used his own experiences as a tank gunner during the invasion as the basis for the film and the sense of experience shows. But so does a lack of backstory and/or explanation. We are simply tossed into the tank, learn the various characteristics of the cast, and then wait for the POV shots to paint in the gaps. Sometimes they do. Sometimes, they struggle to be anything more than a solid exploit. There will definitely be members of the audience taken aback by the constant close-ups and film frames filled with a near Lynchian obsession with leaky industrialism. This is a film of eyes and stubble, not excitement and apprehension.
Yes, Lebanon finds a way to make its narrative device work and it does manufacture the requisite tension. We are also taken with the decision to see things exclusively from the grunts’ grim viewpoint. But like a complicated math problem without a clear solution, it just doesn’t add up. It’s ambitious and well intentioned and, in the end, gets its anti-war message across with relative clarity. But sometimes, scope is important. By its very definition, restricting choices…is restrictive. There’s a lot to admire about Lebanon. There’s also a lot left out.