A War [Motion Picture]. René Ezra and Tomas Radoor (Producers) & Tobias Lindholm (Director). Denmark: Nordisk Films.
We are traversing the picturesque desert of Afghanistan with a platoon of Danish soldiers. The pale sunlight beams down on sand; we see the outline of Kevlar helmets and vests, dark beards, and other military kit. Radio chatter beckons, as soldiers in the platoon walk in squad formation carrying rifles and light-machine guns, scanning the horizon for any enemy fighters advancing in on their position.
Then, as with most modern war films, we are thrust into the thick and heated confusion of battle.
Anders is down.
Get a medic. Over.”
In the somber and gritty mood of this first view of the war, we watch as soldiers kneel and take up defensive positions while others scrounge over to the fallen, attempting to perform combat life-saving measures on the wounded.
Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm and actor Pilous Asbæk (cast as Euron Greyjoy for Game of Thrones, Season 6) brings to life a worthy depiction of the war in Afghanistan, aptly titled Krigen, translated in English as A War.
While set in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, A War tells of company commander, Claus M. Pederson (Pilous Asbæk) and the Danish soldiers under his command, as well as the fateful decision that steers the movie from modern combat in Afghan compounds to the magistrate courtroom drama of trial and tribulation that forms the second portion of the movie.
Ultimate sacrifices are made when Claus is ordered back home to Denmark, facing accusations and charges for war crimes stemming from a violation of the rules of engagement and positive identification. While under heavy enemy fire from small arms and rocket propelled grenades and while calling in a medevac for a wounded soldier under his leadership, an air strike was called on an Afghan compound. This sets all in motion.
Standing trial in Denmark, the film moves into a courtroom setting, where Claus and members of his team are cross-examined. Some offer differing stories of the events that transpired under the company commander’s prerogative and differing justifications for calling in fire on the Afghan compound. The bantering by the prosecutors seems unsettling and moments of awkwardness arise when team members loyal to Claus are questioned on their varied accounts of the battle.
The grievance and comfort his wife, Maria (portrayed by Tuva Novotny), and his three children directs at all things Claus return time and again throughout the script at home. The situational cinematography that drives picturesque father and son bonding—embodying a theme of universal humanity—weaves together all manner of plot points that advance and enhance rather than starve the main storyline.
Watching A War, one cannot help but marvel at the surreal cinematographic base, talent, and realistic drama it portrays. The filmmakers even going so far as to cast real Danish soldiers who had served combat deployments in Afghanistan, prior serving Taliban militants, and actual Afghan refugees. All this adds authenticity to the film.
“I have never been a soldier. I have never been at war. I have only observed war in the news and as entertainment. So when I decided to make A WAR, I had to find people who had witnessed war: Danish soldiers and Taliban warriors, relatives and refugees. I needed to understand the complexity and the logic, although I didn’t expect to tell the truth about warfare for I do not believe that such truth exists. But I wanted to understand in order to tell stories about humans in war because they do exist. And to me A WAR is about them.” —Tobias Lindholm, July 2015
And while A War may not have won the coveted Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, winning a slew of other awards and accolades is sure to set the stage for a large viewership, especially among armed services members, veterans, and military buffs. No rosy red-cheeked praise that isn’t deserved will come after taking in all this picture has to offer.
One does have to wonder, though. Playing good cop and bad cop through the various Afghan war monologues and portraying scenes and aftermath from a 15-plus-year war may leave moviegoers teetering on the brink of asking, “Is this is just another Afghan war drama?”
But A War refuses to be just another simulated war flick—and in doing so distances itself from its lackluster kin. I’ve binged on quite a few indie films, quite a few foreign films, and have stop-played a few of the "War in Afghanistan" titles. A War is indifferent to political ideologies. A War is not just a military-war film like other Afghanistan-based war pictures. The film provides a realistic view of the experience of those who have had the literal frenzy of combat thrown at them.
While the film takes place before the NATO handover of security to Afghan forces and the government, it gives us a sure point as to how coalition forces were challenged day-in and day-out on "routine" patrols. And from an American perspective it is probably best that A War is a Danish film, offering a perspective from a European coalition partner rather than another American perspective of Afghanistan, allowing Americans to focus on the screen and the story, rather than just consume another native narrative.
Could the film have addressed more? Given the complexity of the film crammed into a mere two hours, it espoused its theme well. But if the film had stretched out for an additional half-hour the character development on the witness stand could have provided closure for each of the company commander’s men and answered important questions about their backstories. Most of these men served multiple deployments fraught with danger in the sandbox together. But we are still left guessing. What distinctions of morality and character, if any, were there between the young soldiers and their career military officers?
Ultimately, this film is about many things. Stale and hollow storytelling is not one of them. A War is ripe with the chaos that is war. Watching it, one is struck by courage, tragedy, death, grief, and the circumstantial bureaucracy of war. One has thrust upon them the impact of deployment on family, the demands of brotherhood, and its connections beyond the blurred lines of battle. They all intertwine with one another in one final consummation.
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