Following the critical and awards success of last year's jarring The Hurt Locker, it is no surprise if subsequent war movies follow Kathryn Bigelow's lead in creating portraits of specialized groups of soldiers rather than focusing on the larger conflict. The first of this likely crop is Lebanon, a film focused exclusively on the crew of a beat-up Israeli tank during the opening days of the 1982 Lebanon War.
But the similarities between the two films end with their specificity. Whereas Hurt Locker was a ballistic study of the addictive qualities of combat and adrenaline, Lebanon is filled with anticipation and fear, and it's a hell of an uncomfortable experience. In fact, it probably shares more in common with U-boat epic Das Boot. With more than 99 percent of the film taking place in the bowels of the machine, it's hard to imagine a more claustrophobic journey. We ride along with the mostly green crew as it heads off to a search-and-destroy mission, observing the slow unraveling of the men's wills and sanity. Our only view of the outside world is through the gun sights. Our only contact is through the radio and the occasional visit from a commanding officer. It's nearly unbearable.
Director Samuel Maoz was himself part of a tank crew during that war, and the newcomer's memory of details is key to the experience. The interior of the tank is a living, breathing monster choked with smoke and moisture. A thin layer of water, grime, oil, blood and urine sloshes constantly around the men's feet. A cacophony of clangs and engine revs makes much of the dialogue unintelligible. When the action ramps up, the men's fear is undeniably palpable. In short, it's tense, terrifying and often brilliant.
But Lebanon is a film that's enthralling and frustrating in equal measure. Maoz is a sucker for ham-fisted imagery, and his film loses its stride when it focuses on the gunner's-eye-view of the chaos exploding all around the men. A shot of an innocent man screaming, limbless, on the ground after being blasted by the tank is heartbreaking. But Maoz follows with a lingering image of a bloody donkey lying (and crying!) in the road. A sequence in which the men are ordered to take out terrorists—and their child hostages—with a phosphorous shell is one of the most electric moments in the recent history of war films. Yet Maoz chooses to scan the aftermath and focus on a poster of a Christian saint. (Which one, I'm not sure. But it was probably symbolic.) At one point, we are pointed to a photo of the Twin Towers in a bombed-out travel agency. For a film with such innovative ambitions, it's obvious choices like these that remind us it's only a movie—and takes us completely out of the environment.
Which is a shame, because when Lebanon hits, it hits hard. An extended sequence finds the men stuck in the middle of a battlefield with a disabled engine, and watching them succumb to their fears grates the nerves to the breaking point. A nighttime combat scene is appropriately disorienting and erratic. For a moment, we're watching the work of a potential auteur cutting his teeth on a minimalist masterwork. The men are panicked and covered in sweat. So is the audience. Then, of course, we get a shot of a sunflower in the crosshairs and are reminded, once again, that we're a long way from the battlefield. The Hurt Locker's tagline was "War is a drug." Apparently, so are obvious juxtapositions and elementary metaphors.
opens Friday at Cinema 21.