Watching a war movie isn’t supposed to be the same thing as enlisting, but we might be passing through an unusually immersed moment: The documentary Restrepo and the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker eschew political commentary for a blank-faced delivery of conditions. An epic like Apocalypse Now is beginning to seem like a quaint relic of a poetic age.
Lebanon, written and directed by former Israeli soldier Samuel Maoz, puts a capstone on the trend; it places us completely (except for three shots) in a grimy tank rolling north into the battle zone. It’s June 1982, and Israel’s invasion into the title country has begun. But don’t expect any historical context or idealistic soliloquies. We look out the vehicle’s turret, hear the mysteriously serene voice of “Central Command” issuing instructions, and very nearly smell the blood, sweat and leaking oil. As a piece of formalist filmmaking, this tense tour of duty displays a you-are-there verve neared only by the likes of the 1981 submarine drama, Das Boot.
Is that enough, though? It will be for those content with the takeaway (as is Maoz) that war dehumanizes; his four Israeli soldiers are barely differentiated—one has a breakdown—and that’s an intentional choice. The most pungent bit of characterization comes from a Lebanese separatist encountered along the way who, hidden behind Arabic that our main guys don’t speak, promises castration to a Syrian POW. Very little gets in the way of Lebanon’s apocalyptic mood; if it turns its audience even slightly away from barbarism, it might have done its job.—Joshua Rothkopf
Watch the trailer