Tobias Lindholm’s “A War,” a 2016 Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film, covers well-trodden ground with its depiction of the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But like his 2012 film “A Hijacking,” in which the Danish writer-director tackled the subject of Somali pirate hijackings months before the widely acclaimed “Captain Phillips” took the stage, “A War” is far from trite, demonstrating Lindholm’s knack for delivering a finespun, gritty drama with a quiet but effective moral center.
Unlike “13 Hours,” Michael Bay’s bombastic addition to the movie world’s war genre, “A War” holds our attention by way of internal struggles rather than aggressive machismo. And in contrast to fellow Oscar nominee (and foreign film frontrunner) “Son of Saul” (Hungary), Lindholm’s film forgoes artistic boldness for a more subtle, understated aesthetic.
Pilou Asbæk, who starred in Lindholm’s two other feature films (“A Hijacking” and 2010’s “R”), plays Danish military commander Claus Michael Pederson. (The remaining soldiers, according to the Danish Film Institute, are portrayed by real-life Afghanistan veterans.) Claus and his men are stationed in the Helmand province and tasked with patrolling the area to protect local civilians. They are grim in a distinctly military fashion, but they are no robots— fear, uncertainty and guilt are simmering beneath the surface like the very minefields they patrol.
The opening of the film is silent— almost serene— as the camera lens provides a static sweep of the Afghan landscape before closing in on Claus’s group of patrolmen. The airwaves are punctuated only by the clipped military speak crackling over the soldiers’ radios, but tensions are running high; in the silence lurks one of many IED devices. When it explodes, a 21-year-old soldier becomes the latest in an ever escalating line of casualties. We are not spared the grisly visual details of the aftermath of such an explosion, but Lindholm is a more delicate filmmaker than those who use only guts and gore for the shock factor. Instead, he swiftly shifts to the psyches of the soldiers witnessing a horror they can never unsee while fighting a war they don’t quite understand.
After the IED incident, one soldier tells Claus that the young patrolman’s death “doesn’t make any sense.” Indeed, to Lindholm’s credit, he doesn’t try to make sense of war, brutality, severed limbs or pervasive terror. “A War” finds meaning in the smaller moments of kinship and compassion: when Claus shares a cigarette with a frantic Afghani father of two, and when an injured soldier video calls the unit from his hospital bed in the UK (communicating via notebook paper due a throat wound), thanking Claus for saving his life and telling his brethren to look out for one another. We see it when the soldiers cheerfully greet local children. And we see it when tragedy strikes, when military order is blown to hell and the soldiers ask each other (rhetorically) if they’re okay, as one gently tells his traumatized companion, “It’s okay to be upset.” No one’s kidding themselves with testosterone-fueled, gun-blazing epics— as a medevac helicopter transports the injured soldier out of the region, the camera lingers on the retreating copter, as though everyone below desires nothing more than a similarly miraculous way out of the cycle of violence.
As Claus and his men strive to keep the peace abroad, Claus’s wife Maria (Swedish actress Tuvo Novotny) struggles nobly to hold down the fort back home. Novotny conveys a stunning mixture of somber strength and vulnerable sadness without even saying a word, caring for three young children while stoically awaiting her husband’s safe and speedy return.
But after an ill-fated command by Claus leaves him under suspicion of war crimes, his homecoming occurs sooner than expected. The scene of the war morphs from the sandy desert of the Helmand province to the sterilized whiteness of the military tribunal, where Claus is being tried for unintentionally causing civilian deaths. Even within the setting of the bland bureaucracy, we’re riveted to the screen because we care about Claus— we’ve seen all the good he has done and all the men he has saved, and we’ve experienced the chaotic senselessness of war along with him.
“A War” is not so much about right and wrong as it is about a man trying to do what’s right when everything is already so wrong. At the beginning of the film, Claus comforts a soldier who feels responsible for the 21-year-old patrolman’s death, and later on, he is the one who is burdened with incalculable guilt and the burden of culpability.
All this is deftly revealed through furrowed brows and prematurely lined mouths, through haunted eyes and brooding cigarette breaks, and with a repeated image that packs the emotional punch of the girl in the red coat in “Schindler’s List.” Lindholm follows around his characters from the back (an interesting contrast to “Son of Saul”), wanting to pry into their thoughts but respectfully keeping his distance. When Maria and Claus have an intimate conversation about a particular experience in Afghanistan, the camera again waits outside. In “A War,” silence speaks volumes.