There are no easy answers in A War

There seems to be a misunderstanding about what “documentary style” films really are. Your average over-aspirational American “documentary style” drama filmmaker tends to think that rapid refocuses and enough camera shakiness to nauseate the viewer will suffice. This is not the case. True auteurs know that a good film–regardless of the plot or circumstances–should not look as if the camera was strapped to a neurotic puppy dog with ADHD and an itch. Tobias Lindholm is just such an auteur and he proves this again with his 2015 Oscar Nominee (for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year) A War.

This Danish film, originally entitled Krigen, begins on a stark Afghan desert where a group of soldiers patrol for Taliban fighters. Two things immediately jump out at the viewer: first, the film is so very realistically shot that, at least at first, A War could well be a documentary. Second, this patrol could well be a team from the United States in an American war film if not for the white cross on red background replacing the red, white and blue flag on each soldier’s shoulder.

A War was shot in the deserts of Turkey, standing in for Afghanistan, and this is no documentary. However, this is still one of the most realistic war films ever made, regardless of the nation of origin. This is to say we not only see the standard “war is hell” motif and the physical and emotional impact of war on the soldiers who fight it, but we also see the procedural and official side of modern warfare. This is not a film with a rousing soundtrack and a triumphant hero holding a knife between his teeth. This is the story of rules and regulations about every engagement. While A War is an excellent film, it is not always “exciting,” nor is the action anything the engaged viewer would aspire to become involved in.

Pilou Asbæk is Company Commander Claus Michael Pedersen, a family man stuck in Afghanistan as his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) raises their three children. The human toll of the war (and the families trapped between the Danish soldiers and the Taliban) is juxtaposed by the more peaceful but not quite “easy” life back in Denmark. The Pedersens’ eldest son is facing behavioral problems while the youngest accidentally swallows pills, tempting death. In the aftermath of this, the family’s eldest daughter asks daddy if it is true that he has killed children. These are not the usual inclusions in most war movies.

One of the aspects of this film that lends itself so well to realism is the fact that most of the male actors in this film are actual Danish soldiers who served in Afghanistan. This is noteworthy as these same actors are just as high quality when seen off of the battle field.

This is fortunate as about halfway through A War, the narrative leaves the battlefield and reflects on the actions, legality and major questions of not just this war, but any war. Of course, this happens at the risk of the more realistic feel and the second half of the film could scarcely be confused with a documentary at all. That said, the second half is no less excellent, and the change is much less noticeable than one might think. The questions then take the forefront and the viewer is, by this time, a part of the lives of the canny characters featured in this film. There are no easy answers, nor is there any Hollywood-style ending tying everything together with all loose ends tended to. Instead, A War leaves the viewer with these big questions and a strong desire to re-watch the film and re-analyze the story and its occurrences.

The directing is sharp, the story is engrossing and the acting is excellent. There is a reason that A War is the first Oscar Nominee from Denmark.

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