Cinematic realism can be a double-edged sword in movies about war. Too often, films that mount an accurate depiction of the horrors of armed conflict shortchange audiences with superficial portraits of damaged psyches and shattered lives. With A War, the fictional story of a commander in the Danish army navigating the perils of modern war in Afghanistan, writer-director Tobias Lindholm aims for another kind of realism — one with three-dimensional characters and a focus on the moral and ethical complexities faced by soldiers on the battlefield and beyond.
One of several films nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar currently hitting local screens, the gritty A War takes cues from the first wave of American movies to address the Vietnam War in the late 1970s and early ’80s, such as The Deer Hunter and Coming Home. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq represent the first modern wars in which Denmark has taken part, and Lindholm clearly seeks to jump-start a public process of assessing the meaning and value of that country’s participation in the U.S.-led effort.
The Danish perspective is a fresh one for a film of this type. A War switches back and forth between Company Commander Claus M. Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek) leading his men on treacherous patrols in Afghanistan and Pedersen’s wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) and their three children, who struggle at home in his absence. A split-second decision made on the battlefield leads to major shifts in tone and focus for the film, and it becomes a tense courtroom drama in its final third. The empty heroism and moral certainty of many American war movies are nowhere to be found.
With its shaky handheld camera work and intermittently abrupt cuts, A War pushes Lindholm’s near-documentary visual style harder than it should. But natural performances save the day, not only as regards the film’s lead roles but also in its large ensemble of soldiers — almost all of whom are played by non-actor veterans of the Danish military and the Afghanistan war. Lindholm kept details of the battle sequences secret from the supporting cast, asking them only to react to events just as they were trained to do. The technique is remarkably effective and helps keep the story honest.
The film addresses key issues surrounding Denmark’s (and other countries’) combat presence in Afghanistan in a surprisingly subtle way. In an important early scene, Pedersen tries to reassure his assembled troops after they’ve lost a soldier to an improvised explosive device (IED) while performing essentially meaningless patrols. Their presence in the area serves to maintain “momentum in winning the civilians over,” he tells them. It’s a page taken directly from real life, as is the roaring silence that meets this inadequate justification for risking soldiers’ lives on a daily basis.
The title of the film is generic, but Lindholm means to deflect attention from the specifics of the Afghanistan war and quietly suggest that all ideologically driven military campaigns may be suspect by their very nature. It’s the kind of discussion-worthy, postwar reassessment whose time finally may have come.
A War begins an exclusive run on Friday, March 4 at The Broad Theater.