Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 submarine thriller "Das Boot" is one obvious touchstone for Lebanon, a gripping war film by Israeli director Samuel Maoz in which the camera’s point of view is largely restricted to the inside of an Israeli Army tank.
Among its remarkable traits, "Das Boot" compelled American audiences to care about World War II’s bad guys—some aboard the U-Boat were ardent Nazis, others not. Sympathizing with the rank-and-file soldiers inside Lebanon’s military conveyance is at once easier and more complicated because the conflict they’re engaged in doesn’t lend itself to tidy demarcations such as good versus evil, us versus them. War itself is the enemy.
Winner of the top prize at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, "Lebanon" is a bracing addition to the canon of anti-war films. No matter how one parses Middle East politics, it is difficult to emerge from "Lebanon" without feeling that the horrors of war overwhelm all other considerations.
Credit goes to writer-director Maoz for creating a sensory experience that can trigger such a sweeping reaction. The salient aesthetic question is whether he goes too far and allows his focus on artifice to weaken the film’s impact. The visceral subject matter certainly scrambles any notion that realism is the best mode for expressing truth; and yet there are times when "Lebanon" feels too carefully staged and self-contained to be a truly great war movie.
In 1982 during the First Lebanon War, Maoz was a twenty-year-old doing his mandatory stint in the Israeli Army. The film rose from his recollections of serving as a tank gunner on the exact morning events take place. Other key members of the production team also saw action during the war.
The first shot is of a field of sunflowers wilting in the sun, stalks bent over at the waist. That’s how we feel by movie’s end: drained and bowed. A title card indicates it’s June 6, 1982, the first day of the invasion. Henceforth, everything is seen from inside the tank, with all the action outside viewed through the machine’s periscopic gun sight. The crew consists of reluctant gunner Shmuel, in-over-his-head commander Assi, baby-faced driver Yigal, and loader Herzl, a first-class kibitzer whose chatter can be heard above the roar of the engine and the din of machine gun fire.
Their mission: provide support for twelve foot soldiers on a mopping-up operation through an unnamed city previously bombed by the Israeli Air Force. According to the trooper in charge, Jamil, their destination is a hotel called San Tropez. When Jamil assures the crew that things will go smoothly, we know they won’t. Our pity for these amateur soldiers, young men confined to a fetid, slow and noisy metal box, begins percolating immediately. “Order and hygiene” will be hard to maintain.
After some humorous banter introduces the characters, all are thrust into battle. Two harrowing incidents on a road outside the town shatter equanimity inside the tank and movie theater alike. Rolling through rubble-strewn neighborhoods, the soldiers only add to the devastation that’s been visited upon the population. Their own lot doesn’t improve either. They share the tank with a dead comrade and a Syrian prisoner of war, lose communication with HQ, stray off course, experience engine failure, and encounter hostiles and nominally friendly Phalangists (Christian Arabs).
Viewers should be forewarned about graphic images and tableaus that may prove disturbing. What’s more disconcerting is that the viewer is hard-pressed to describe any of it as collateral damage in the context of a war fought in an urban setting against an elusive foe.
As vivid and as grounded in personal experience as "Lebanon" may be, there’s nothing at all naturalistic about the style deployed by Maoz and company. They’re definitely not afraid of metaphor. Along with the fractured lens of the gunner’s viewfinder (sustained halfway through), salad croutons are a key symbol, mixing with motor oil, blood and urine in a way that will put you off the crunchy comestibles for weeks. Other macabre, picaresque touches are a Madonna and Child painting in a decimated flat where a woman and her daughter are imperiled and posters of the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and the World Trade Center in a travel agency otherwise blown to smithereens.
"Lebanon" has an operatic quality, with the sound of the pivoting gun turret and periscope providing modernist accompaniment. Another way of describing Maoz’s approach is to say he puts an exclamation point on everything. Judging by how he represents the chaos and surreal nature of combat, he’s clearly studied Apocalypse Now. Unfortunately, the claustrophobia and confusion he tries to achieve using an elegantly compressed structure and superb photography are undercut by his over-the-top choices.
This absence of subtly is reflected in a few codas that counteract the brutality inherent in this or any theater of war. These moments—the Pieta-like cradling of one soldier by another, for instance—may be meant to assure us that personal dignity can survive utterly dehumanizing situations. The most prominent example is when one soldier inside the tank helps their shackled prisoner relieve himself. Underlining their connection in this way borders on the sentimental; if nothing else, it feels slightly precious. Criticizing this gesture against despair and cynicism seems harsh. After all, we should embrace hope wherever we can find it. And formally, if you go for the jugular in depicting the horrors of war, the countervailing moments need to be equally forceful or else they will be lost. The problem is that this moment invites us to look beyond the frame. Does Maoz include it because it actually happened, because he wants to make a point, or merely because he’s looking to appease audiences unwilling to descend into total darkness?
Other than offering axioms familiar from countless war flicks, what does Maoz want to say about this particular military action? It’s not a stretch to read "Lebanon" as a condemnation of Israeli militarism, yet the movie’s political teeth aren’t especially sharp. (The Phalangists fare the worst.)
Maoz the artist would likely trumpet the idea that the movie is non-ideological. By avoiding the political and straining to create a universal portrait of war, however, he risks not saying enough. The strength of "Lebanon" is also its weakness. Put differently, "Lebanon" works extremely well but on only one level. You imagine someone crying out in frustration, “Of course war is hell!” To which a defender might reply, “A movie like Lebanon is about an experience not about ideas!” The deck is certainly stacked, since not even the most hawkish Israeli would condone what the civilians and combatants in the movie endure. On the other hand, if this was the nature of the Lebanon war, sadly, it echoed wars of the past and foreshadowed the wars of today.