Arts & Events

A War: Truth from an Oscar-nominated Film: War Is a Bore—and It Can Be a Trial

Gar Smith
Friday February 19, 2016 - 05:34:00 PM

Opens February 19 at San Francisco's Embarcadero Cinema and February 26 at Berkeley's Landmark Shattuck

Director/writer Tobias Lindholm's Academy-Award-Nominated Best Foreign Language Film, A War, captures both the rigors of war and the mundane, crippling consequences for war's survivors. Filmed in the outlands of Turkey, Lindholm serves up scenes that duplicate the Afghanistan we have glimpsed in nightly news reports. But the film goes beyond the battlefield to show a war's impacts—both domestic and political—back home. Like A Few Good Men and The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, Lindholm's tale starts in a soldier's dirty world and ends in a sterile courtroom.

This may be the slowest-moving war film in the history of cinema. Which is a good thing. Most war films focus on the frantic scramble of combat when a good part of a soldier's experience involves downtime—sitting, waiting, pondering, fearing, regretting. Lindholm's pacing provides viewers with sufficient time for inward reflection and evaluation about a soldier's life—line of work that is often little more than a demanding form of drudgery, but one that carries the risk of sudden, life-changing injury or violent, bloody death.




Director Lindholm reportedly cast actual Danish soldiers and real Afghan civilians (both villagers and refugees), as well as Taliban fighters, in his film. In a video interview with the New York Times, Lindholm describes how he aimed for authenticity by inviting professional snipers to join him in the post-production. He even allowed them to "edit" a scene involving a long-distance "kill." 

It's an important scene, since it depicts the legal "niceties" of modern, nuanced war. In this case, a Taliban fighter recovers a buried IED but the snipers cannot open fire while he is merely digging up the bomb. They need to wait until he's holding it in his hands. At this point, the target is judged to be acting with "hostile intent" and can be gunned down—by hidden gunmen hiding behind a pile of rocks a quarter-mile away. 

A "Show of Force" Slowly Falters 

A War details how the daily work of this forlorn band of brothers requires them to "show their presence" by roving through Afghanistan's isolated, tree-less, dry-dirt provinces dressed in sweltering battle gear, hauling backpacks and vests weighed down with ammo and water jugs—and always cradling high-powered rifles. 

These men are perfect targets for any Taliban fighters that want to hunker in the landscape and fire off a few potshots. Easier still for the local fighters to simply sit back and wait for a foreign soldier to stumble across a buried bomb—a weapon that is virtually guaranteed to leave a human body in three pieces. 

A War provides one clear sign that US presence in Afghanistan has had a lasting influence: The Danish soldiers have all adopted the phrase, "Fuck, man!" 

Early in the film, "Denmark's finest" vent their frustrations and challenge the value of these seemingly futile—and dangerous—"displays of strength" that require them to creep around villages where, as the locals tell them: "The Taliban run away whenever you show up. But they always come back at the night." 

When a team muscles its way into the home of a poor Afghan family with rifles drawn and their nerves on edge, all they find is a desperate father whose young daughter is lying in a bed, whimpering from the pain of a burned and infected arm. And all the team's medic can do is offer to "rinse the wound with water" and rewrap it in military-grade gauze. 

Company commander Claus Pederson (Pilou Asbaek) is a powerful presence on the battlefront, alternately leading and comforting "his boys." Asbaek brings a brooding profile to the role, thanks, in part, to a muscular, furrowed brow that suggests he starts every morning with 100 eyebrow push-ups. (While Clark Gable had a cleft chin, Asbaek has a cleft forehead.) 

But, when it comes to his role as a long-distance father, the daily cross-continental phone calls to Denmark don't give his struggling family much comfort or support. 

Abandoned at home, Claus' wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) has to deal with three children—one adorable, one sullen and one deeply troubled. The oldest boy has a penchant for starting fights, ignoring orders, challenging his mother and biting other kids. 

The film captures the insanity of imposed wars. Civilians are confronted and threatened by nervous soldiers who grow angry when their commands are not instantly obeyed. (Remember, they are shouting commands in Danish!) 

"At the end of the day, our job is to get our men back all in one piece," Claus insists. The primary goal is to "protect your brothers," not to protect civilians. 

From Afghan Trails to Danish Trials 

The defining conflict comes one day when Pederson and his team find themselves trapped inside a small village compound, under fire, with a fellow soldier bleeding to death. Desperate to protect his men and secure an opening for a medevac chopper, Claus calls in an airstrike. 

There's an explosion that covers the soldiers in sand and pebbles as they hover protectively over the body of their injured comrade. He is evacuated to a hospital. No Danish lives are lost. 

Claus explains his situation with a phrase that has been recited, used, and misused by soldiers in every century that has seen war: "I had to do something." 

Claus has acted bravely and responsibly. Or so it seems. 

Tragically, it turns out that the airstrike killed a number of civilians, including children. Pederson discovers the mistake when he enters a demolished room and finds the bodies of dead children covered with dust and blood. Pederson is stunned by the sight of the two bare feet of one dead child. 

Some days later, army investigators interrogate Claus and inform him that he will be heading home to rejoin his family—and to stand trial for war crimes. 

The besieged soldiers assumed the targeted building was filled with Taliban. But assumptions are not enough. Under the laws of war, a commander needs to have "PID"—positive identification of the enemy—before calling in a lethal strike. 

This can be a difficult choice in a situation where bullets are flying at you and cutting through the bodies of your men. 

The film returns to Denmark. Claus is reunited with his family but he has to spend each day in a courtroom facing a panel of grim-faced judges—and the prospect of a multi-year prison sentence. 

The courtroom proceedings inevitably seep into the Pederson's shaky home life. One night, as Claus is helping Maria put his children to bed, his daughter asks a question that no father should ever have to answer. 

The final image in the film is especially haunting. After Claus has tucked in his oldest son, he turns back and freezes. He finds himself starring at the boy's small feet, barefoot and sticking out from beneath his blanket. 

The Issue of Combat-Cams 

There is one element of Lindholm's story that is especially notable. The key evidence used against Pederson comes from a videotape that captured his commands during the heat of battle. It turns out that Danish soldiers are required to wear cameras in the battlefield. The evidence gathered by these "troop-cams" can be used in court. 

The utility of issuing "body cameras" to police officers has now been clearly established in the US. What are the chances that US soldiers might be equipped with cameras to record their interactions with foreigners in distant combat zones? 

Apparently there are a few cases where the Pentagon has allowed video cameras in combat situations but there is a basic resistance to their use. As Major Ryan Kenny explains in an article for AFCEA International, the Pentagon has blocked any plans for the use of battlefield body-cams out of a fear of "tactical video footage failing into enemy hands or being exploited for anti-US military proprganda." The Pentagon has even opposed soldiers using personal Go-Pro helmet-cams while on duty. (That ban, apparently, is widely ignored, given the assortment of hand-made in-combat videos now widely available on YouTube.) 

An Interview with Director Tobias Lindholm 

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