Deep Focus: A War
A harrowing, heart-rending portrait of a Danish company commander in Afghanistan, A War is named A War, not The War or simply War, for the same reason that Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm called his crackling film about Somali pirates A Hijacking (13). Without inflating any of it into sermonizing melodrama, this formidably talented writer-director finds the universal within the specific. He’s got great depth of focus, and even his peripheral vision is 20-20. At 38, he’s already a master at creating immersive dramatic environments, then making them resound with far-reaching implications, whether about the contradictions of a civilized nation sending its young men into combat, or the calamitous communication gap between European and Third World peoples. As he also demonstrated in the devastating script he wrote with Tomas Vinterberg for that director’s The Hunt (13), depicting a kindergarten teacher wrongly accused of child molestation, Lindholm is both hyper-observant about the immediate reality of torn-from-the-headline stories and exquisitely attuned to eternal quandaries of morality and character. While zeroing in on an inadvertent atrocity committed during the war in Afghanistan, Lindholm illuminates the modern paradox of enlightened men and women trying to maintain humane standards of behavior in pitched combat.
Earlier this week, at a preview screening for Academy members in Los Angeles, Lindholm said he had attempted to do the opposite of war films that dramatize the dehumanization of troops. Instead of going the route of (for example) Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, he aimed to humanize the troops. He said that’s why he made the family of the hero/antihero, Claus Michael Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek), a constant presence in the movie, both for the audience (with cross-cutting) and for Claus himself (with cell-phones). It will come as no surprise to fans of The Hunt or Lindholm’s scripts for the sensational TV political drama Borgen that he is marvelously natural at expressing the strains of marriage and parenthood. As Maria Pedersen, the Swedish actress Tuva Novotny offers an unsentimental portrait of domestic valor as she raises their two young sons and daughter. The children themselves are refreshingly and, at times, alarmingly spontaneous.
Lindholm accents the humanity not just in Pedersen’s home life, but also in Pedersen’s leadership of his troops and his perilous interplay with Afghan civilians. What’s daring about A War is that, while never “breaking bad,” Pedersen ends up making a battleground decision that costs nearly a dozen civilian lives—and, back home, tests the ethics and loyalty of his wife and comrades-in-arms. The aura it conjures is both gritty and eerie.
This movie rescues the concept of “the fog of war” from cliché and overuse. Here the fog of war is both a mind-clouding physical condition and an ethical miasma. Yet Lindholm sets up his conflicts lucidly and unsparingly. In Afghanistan, Claus dispatches men on numbingly repetitive patrols. They make themselves vulnerable to IEDs and the Taliban in order to protect peaceful Afghans and, at least in theory, enable them to rebuild their shattered communities. Lindholm clarifies from the beginning that in this rural waste strewn with hidden explosives, and with enemies lurking behind any ridge, idealistic goals become hopelessly abstract to fighting men.
Claus commands a mixture of fragile neophytes and battle-hardened veterans. They are mostly played by real veterans—and even the roughest and toughest among them look vulnerable as they roam through rock and sand in what used to be called “Indian file.” One Dane takes a comrade’s designated spot in the patrol line, gets blown up, and bleeds out; his death overwhelms the man who switched positions with him, Lasse (Dulfi Al-Jabouri), who begs to be sent home. Claus neither cheers Lasse up with patriotic bromides nor slaps him back into his senses like a latter-day Patton. Instead, he urges Lasse to place a private call to his younger sister, sip some coffee, then stay behind and work in camp for a couple of weeks. Claus himself fills in for Lasse on patrol—a humane act that puts undue pressure on his own nerves and stamina and sets a disaster in motion.
Via Claus’s eyes and binoculars—and his smarts and sensitivity—Lindholm captures the horrors and absurdities his troops face. In the absence of interpreters, even a poignant interchange threatens to become a catastrophe, as a father begs the soldiers to treat his daughter’s burned arm. Lindholm inserts one instance of utter military clarity: a Danish sniper takes down a motorcycling rifleman who digs up an IED and uses a child as a human shield. Both Claus’s commands and Lindholm’s direction are precise and analytical. In routine war movies, Claus’s dispassion would be an expression of callousness: he keeps his back to the target as he mutters orders to the sniper. In A War, it’s a sign of sanity and professionalism. Later, Lindholm presents the men’s celebration of their kill without apology, and without glorification, either. Lindholm allows audiences to absorb complex, tense situations like a roadside checkpoint where Danes toss Afghans from their cars and subject them to humiliating searches before allowing them to move on. This movie starts at the point where naïve antiwar movies end. It isn’t about learning that war is hell. It’s about soldiers and civilians alike struggling to operate in a world they know is hell.
At home, Lindholm frees the parallel tensions in Pedersen’s family from any melodramatic or sentimental hype. Normal daily life is filled with more than enough pressure for a mother of three. The middle Pedersen child, Julius (Adam Chessa), fights with a classmate (and takes a bite out of his shoulder), refuses to walk into his school without his mother, and taunts his preternaturally calm, slightly older sister Figne (Elise Søndergaard). She’s not quite mature enough to help her mother oversee the cute little toddler of the family, Elliott (Andreas Buch Borgwardt), who’s as difficult to anticipate as kittens. Lindholm judiciously deploys a mobile, handheld camera on both the front line and the home front. Rather than cover every hidden corner of a crisis, he puts viewers in the position of a soldier pinned down by fire—or a mother unable to find a moment’s peace without her youngest child gaily swallowing a batch of pills. Lindholm realizes that the beauty of this documentary-like technique is counter-intuitive: it lies in subjectivity, not objectivity, in allowing an audience to take on the stripped nerves of a fighter who can’t see his enemy, and the nerve-rattling uncertainty of a mother who can’t keep her eyes on her boys every single minute.
The movie’s setup is strong and simple, but its reverberations are challenging and mysterious. Lindholm holds to the Danes’ perspective without shortchanging the plight of Afghans caught in the crossfire between them and the Taliban. According to military protocols, Claus must refuse shelter in his base camp to the family of the burned girl, though he knows it spells almost certain doom for them. The repercussions of that act, along with the traumatized Lasse’s return to battle and Claus’s sixth sense for trouble brewing back home, may affect this compassionate leader’s judgment. During a brutal ambush, his core belief that he must save every man he can under his command puts him into adrenaline overdrive. Lindholm walks us so surely into Claus’s mindset that we’re as surprised as he is when he gets charged with a war crime. His homecoming is bittersweet, emphasis on the bitter. He and Maria seem startled when his defense lawyer (Søren Malling) says that as a matter of law, he’s a man who killed eleven innocent people.
The casualness of the Danish courtroom allows the unpretentious profundity of this film to flower. As his shrewd attorney and the no-nonsense prosecutor (Charlotte Munck) thrust and parry, and as his men exude silent support from the gallery, Claus confronts the unforeseen consequences of his group survival instinct—the awful mute evidence of atrocity resulting from a decent commander’s effort to preserve his troops. As Afghanistan comes to Denmark, the war there enters a super-rational Western legal battleground. It’s as if we’re witnessing the quiet collision of two worlds.
Lindholm has the clarity and nuance of a gifted social novelist and the rare filmmaking ability to get his complicated perceptions on the screen. If he were adapting a sprawling war novel we might sense him organizing and editing incidents and simplifying their meanings. But putting together an original script from bits and pieces of real war stories, working in full collaboration with his actors and non-actors, Lindholm has created a movie with just the right amount of heft.
The entire ensemble helps this writer-director fill the screen with double- and triple-decker feelings, but there are two supporting standouts: Novotny is a wonder as she hides her burdens with forced gaiety on the phone to her man, and Dar Salim roots the film in warmth and sanity as Claus’s best friend Najib. In his blisteringly honest courtroom testimony, Najib tells the prosecutor, “You don’t know what it’s like to be out there,” and Salim makes every syllable sting. (Salim and Malling as well as Asbaek did sterling work on Borgen.)
Asbaek fully inhabits the pivotal role and provides the protean sensibility that drives the movie to its powerhouse finish. The way Asbaek plays Claus, he uncannily picks up on his wife’s mixed signals and domestic difficulties over the phone, and when he does get home, he plays easily with all three of his children—something we rarely see in films about battle-hardened warriors. He’s such a magnetic actor that he effortlessly dominates a scene even when he’s ceding it to others—as when Salim’s sympathetic Najib grabs the phone to lighten the mood with Claus’s son Julius (who charmingly tells an awful joke).
Lindholm and Asbaek have forged one of the great filmmaker-actor partnerships in contemporary cinema. In Borgen, Asbaek is superb at exploring the dark corners and unusual, inchoate tenderness of an ultra-savvy and articulate character. For Lindholm’s big-screen adventures he plays characters who are anything but slick. In A Hijacking he’s a magnet for audience sympathy as the hijacked ship’s cook, an endomorphic Everyman who grows gaunter and more elusive as the film goes along. He provides the emotional high point when he croons a traditional Danish song, mostly to himself, to mark his daughter’s birthday. In A War, Asbaek is dynamic as a leader who wants to do the right thing but will never be able to square his capacious, deeply embedded empathy with the primal urges to protect his own men and his family.
At the L.A. screening, Lindholm told the audience that he didn’t let the cast see the last five pages of the script, and that he’d shot two endings. It’s a testament to his filmmaking and emotional sophistication that he used bits and pieces of each version in the final film.
When the judge (played by a retired Danish jurist) delivers her verdict at the climax of A War, a welter of emotions wash across Asbaek’s face. Sadness and confusion bleed into each other. You know he’ll never be the same. Lindholm’s film makes us measure the price combat exacts in the conscience, heart and soul of one valiant commander. Asbaek carries the fate of the earth in his furrowed brow. His anguished eyes will follow you home.