Film Review: “A War” — Despair, Carefully Calibrated

The movie plays all sides equally, providing no answers, no favorites, no villains, no heroes. Everybody’s motives and ethics are in question.

A War, directed by Tobias Lindholm. At the Kendall Square Cinema

A scene from "A War."

A scene from “A War.”

By Tim Jackson

War may be hell or heroism, but it’s also duty, service, trauma, and confusion. Days that pass in uncertainly and tedium can suddenly explode into chaos and combat. In A War (nominated for a 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film), director Tobias Lindholm uses Danish troops stationed in Afghanistan to tell a story of the existential despair of warfare where a soldier’s split second action can have far reaching moral consequences.

A battalion led by Commanding Officer Claus Michael Pedersen finds itself under under siege. Pederson makes a desperate effort to save the life of a severely wounded soldier by calling in air support. The elemental question is — did he have his eyes on the enemy before calling for support? The call has tragic consequences: ‘collateral damage.’ Pedersen is brought back from the field to be tried for unwarranted targeting of civilians. The story is told in two parts: there’s the day-by-day procedure and inevitable tedium of scouting for the Taliban and scenes of bone-rattling warfare; and the disturbing calm and professionalism of the Danish tribunal. A third plot touches on Pedersen’s wife and three children, who have patiently waited for him to fulfill his tour of duty. When he is sent home early because of the charges, what should have been a celebration becomes a legal and ethical tangle. “Did you kill children, daddy?” asks his daughter. Pedersen is a responsible officer, — his world is turned upside down. Actor Pilou Asbæk anchors the film by generating sympathy for an honest man, a soldier of compassion and integrity, who is suddenly caught in circumstances that call into question his moral values.

I will avoid spoilers about the specifics of the battlefield and the trial, but the audience should be warned to observe carefully. Lindholm is concerned with visual and psychological nuance and works with enormous care. As edited by Adam Nielsen, every glance, every turn of an eye resonates with subtext and significance. On the surface, the story unfolds casually and spontaneously, but there is an exquisite sense of balance — ideas and situations are finely calibrated. For instance, an Afghani father comes to the soldiers to seek treatment for the severe burns on his daughter’s arm. The call for humane assistance is obvious. Yet rules and regulations have been put in place dictating the extent to which soldiers are allowed to get involved with the population.

This is a deeply unstable and threatening environment; the people are desperately poor and at the mercy of the Taliban. Back at home, Pedersen’s infant swallows some pills. His wife, Maria (played by a marvelous actress named Tuva Novotny) packs up the family and rushes to the local hospital where the child’s stomach is pumped. Life is tough and life without a father is tougher, but at home there is a safe haven for the young. For families in Afghanistan life is torn apart daily by poverty and war. Is one child’s life worth more than another? These are not choices; they are open-ended ongoing ethical questions that cannot be answered. The movie plays all sides equally, providing no answers, no favorites, no villains, no heroes. Everybody’s motives and ethics are in question.

In his movie The Hunt (co-written with Thomas Vinterberg), Lindholm dealt with the consequences of a man falsely accused of child abuse. With A Hijacking, his film about a hijacked cargo ship, he used handheld cameras and non-professional actors to get inside the grueling strife of a crew under siege. A War, like A Hijacking, is shot in a deft, documentary style. In the courtroom, the camera bears down on faces that suggest nothing but paradoxes and uncertainties. In each film, Lindholm poses unanswerable questions: about right and wrong, the value of human life, and the never-ending anguish of war.

Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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