Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon follows on the heels of Beaufort and Waltz with Bashir as the latest of Israeli films to offer a compelling and often very personal reflection on the 1982 Lebanon War. Maoz served as a gunner in the tank division during that war, and he confines his film to what he knows best: all the action takes place inside of a tank on the first day of the invasion.
The personal and historical aspects of Lebanon’s story are not particularly emphasized, though. You can find some more of the personal side in the short making-of documentary that comes as a special feature (although it’s unfortunately the only special feature besides a trailer). In the film itself, we are given little context besides the start date of the war and vague declarations of who the allies and enemies are. For an Israeli already familiar with the details of the war, the film no doubt would speak specifically to that moment in their history. The success of Lebanon, though, lies in the fact that for those with only cursory knowledge of Israeli history, the movie is a story about modern warfare generally as much as it is one about the 1982 Lebanon War specifically.
The film follows four young soldiers as they drive a tank into Lebanon on the first day of the war. They are assigned the seemingly simple mission of driving through a village already bombed by the air force in order to clear it of any remaining enemy forces. Of course, the mission goes wrong, although it is never quite clear why or how. These details are left undeveloped, and rightly so. The film is not a judgment on particular decisions made in the war. It examines a group of soldiers who are often clueless as to their superior’s intents or reasons.
If there is one flaw in the movie, though, it is the four main characters. Each is given a particular trait — the insecure leader, the rebellious soldier, the tepid gunner, and the homesick driver — that when combined with the others allows for maximum tension within the tank. This makes for good dialogue, but as individual characters they are all somewhat lacking in detail.
What works best for the film is the setting. Having everything occur within the tank allows for increased nerves through claustrophobia, and the movie is giftedly shot to make use of that potential. Beyond that, though, the gimmick of the film works because Maoz uses the tank as more than just a constraining environment. He equally uses the restraint of the setting to explore the relationship between the soldiers and the machine that they control, and this is more fascinating than the relationships between the soldiers themselves or even their gradual mental deterioration.
The tank gets muddied, worn down, and starts to deteriorate as the film progresses. It even breaks down halfway through the film, only to resuscitate against all odds like a stereotypical war hero. This dashes the hopes of the tank-crew who thought the tank’s demise would mean an airlift out of battle. Their participation in the war, we realize, is tied to the tank’s health as much as it is to their own.
The tank, though, is also the form all four characters take in the eyes of other soldiers, enemies, or civilians. The film regularly shows the victims of the war staring right into the tank’s crosshairs; the human eyes that stare out are seen from the outside as a machine bent only on destruction.
It is common to believe that the army and war work to turn humans into machines. The main message of Lebanon, though, runs contrary to that attitude. Machines have certainly aggravated the realities of war, but human emotions still lie at the heart of it. The characters in the film that become emotionless also become lifeless. It is those driven by fear and anger that most force action, be it for right or wrong. Even the most overt symbol of the army’s emotionless training — the chain of command — is no longer sacred in the tank. As the reasons behind the war and the crew’s particular mission become increasingly murky, so does the willingness to obey orders.
The first words one encounters in Lebanon are ones engraved on the tank: “Man is steel. The tank is only iron.” They point to the film’s status as a tale of human survival. But while most movies of this kind are preoccupied with answering the question, how will the characters get out of this, Lebanon is equally worried about a prior question: Why are they there in the first place?