‘A War’ Tosses Aside Politics for a Truly Compelling Human Drama

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This is a repost of our November 8th review of A War from AFI Fest.

After over a decade of military intervention in the Middle East, domestic attitudes towards the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could probably be drawn along ideological lines. For the liberals, everything was hell before January 2009. For the conservatives, everything was going well before January 2009. Maybe, just maybe, somewhere in the middle lies the truth. But when we think about the genuine human toll of these conflicts, statistics are trotted out – numbers of civilian and military deaths – or the human interest stories appear on the television before we trot out the lone soldier before a key sporting event. In the simplest of terms, we always like to put these conflicts in a manner of black and white – good and bad. But there’s a grey area, always have been and always will be.

With A War, writer-director Tobias Lindholm explores a different kind of human toll that isn’t usually the subject of rah-rah profiles – when good men make honest mistakes in the heat of war, and the familial problems that arise from a paternal absence. As much as the film is about the missing patriarch of a family, Tobias Lindholm focuses greatly on the wife left behind and her unwinnable task of trying to raise three young kids with a husband and father on a far-off battlefield. A War is a film of raw emotion, visceral tension, and questions of moral ambiguity or righteousness in times of war. It’s a film of powerful tension, a riveting work in all aspects that truly left me floored.

Leading a troop of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan, Claus (Pilou Asbæk) is a compassionate leader deeply concerned for the safety of his men. When one of his men is gravely shaken following an encounter with an IED that left one man dead, Claus takes on patrol duties to give his weary soldier a break. Claus’ close friend and fellow soldier Najib (Dar Salim) doesn’t agree with Claus working in the field. Back in his native Denmark, Claus’ wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) struggles to raise their three children alone, especially as one of their sons is intent on acting out during his father’s absence. Back in Afghanistan, Claus is stuck in the tenuous position of trying to help the local population, though if the locals are observed receiving any aid from the foreigners they face violent retribution from the Taliban. During a harrowing shootout with Taliban forces, Claus gives a panicked order that may save the lives of his fellow soldiers but will claim the lives of innocents. It’s a choice for which Claus will have to face trial for in his native Denmark. While he’s able to go home and be reunited with his family, Claus’ troubles aren’t over as a possible four-year prison sentence hangs over his head.

A War works so well because it’s not a political film. Yes, its story grapples with politics, but Lindholm has crafted a story that is designed to make you ask questions about truth and morality in the fog of war. There’s no designated political point that the film is trying to hammer down anyone’s throats. Combined with Lindholm’s assured direction, A War is a film that’s as thought provoking as it is viscerally thrilling, with some of the tensest battle scenes since the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. It’s chaos cinema used to its maximum potential, adding a dusty sense of realism to the recreated battle.

I jokingly call Pilou Asbæk the Danish Michael Shannon because of his resemblance to the American actor, but it also works in the sense that he shares much of Shannon’s powerful screen presence. There’s a reason he’s recently joined Game of Thrones.  Everyone, especially Tuva Novotny, lends an emotional honesty to the drama inherent in A War.

Most importantly, A War is a powerful film because it’s not a movie of right or left, of heroes and villains. It’s a story focused solely on the humanity at stake in these situations. Even the confident prosecutor that places Claus on trial carries herself with a certain smug confidence, but even then she can’t be characterized as a villain. Like the soldiers who committed the fatal errors, she’s just doing her job. And that’s where A War stands out. It makes us admire the commitment to duty while making us question when that obligation runs into a grey area of moral ambiguity. Yes, this is what they’re supposed to do. But is it the right thing to do?

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