Company Commander Claus Pedersen is a good man. We know this from practically the first scene in Danish director Tobias Lindholm‘s “A War,” and not just because he is played with characteristic everyman integrity by the preternaturally sympathetic Pilou Asbæk. It’s in the way he hovers worriedly over the radio back at base camp as he hears news of a routine patrol of the surrounding Afghan countryside going horribly awry. It’s in the way he picks the exact right tone of voice to talk to the shellshocked men who return, some splattered with blood not their own. It’s in the way his goodness is mirrored in that of his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) at home in Denmark, raising three unruly children without him, in wry good humor. We know Claus is a good man for every decision he makes and every motivation he has throughout the course of this bruising two hours of you-are-there cinema, and we also know that his goodness is not going to be good enough. After just two prior directorial features, the brutal, prison-set “R” and the gruelling shipbound “A Hijacking,” Lindholm returns to the territory of men (or more specifically, Pilou Asbaek, because he stars in all three) trapped in volatile, stressful and violent situations with “A War,” and it is a tremendous, provocative cap to that unofficial trilogy.
Parachuting us into the action in media res, the film starts with a literal bang in a grisly landmine sequence that proves once again how adept Lindholm and regular DP Magnus Nordenhof Jønck have become at creating a sense of jolting immediacy. The camera is handheld and slightly nervy but everything remains fluid, comprehensible, and often grittily beautiful. Of the dazed soldiers scrambling to the assistance of the wounded man, one in particular, Lasse (Dulfi Al-Jabouri) is closest and is the most hysterically affected as his fellow soldier dies in his arms before the Medevac helicopter arrives. Later, he falls apart, and begs to be sent home. But Claus can’t do that, instead consigning Lasse to barrack duty for the next fortnight, and resolves to start leading the patrols himself as a morale boost for his men.
Having established an anything-can-happen mood of unease with that early explosion, Lindholm ensures that now every new foray out into the scrubby desert comes freighted with threat, an itchy, nerve-wracking sense that any situation, no matter how seemingly benign, could go sour in half a quickened heartbeat. This tension only increases as the movie wears on and the feeling mounts that we are operating on borrowed time, especially, to give an added lurch to the stomach, when children play a role in so many of the encounters. Whether they’re clustering around the soldiers in play, being used as human shields by escaping militants or trailing into the camp with their parents to beg for refuge from the Taliban, the presence of all these kids is entirely unnerving, when you can feel in your bones that something bad is going to happen.
And Claus’ children back home are not out of harm’s way either. Trying to bond with her elder son who is taking Claus’ absence the hardest, Maria takes her eye off the youngest for a moment and he swallows some pills. He’s taken to hospital to have his stomach pumped — a sequence Lindholm allows to play out in full (a lesser filmmaker would cross-but between the two locales for added pathos) and which he treats with the same urgency and gravity as anything that happens in Afghanistan. This is not to create an equivalence between the experiences of husband and wife that trivializes either, it is more to reinforce the overriding theme: acting out of nothing but a purehearted desire to help and protect your family or your crew, you can still do the wrong thing. Or at least the thing that has the wrongest possible consequences, which in Claus’ case see him sent home, lawyered up (his lawyer is played by “A Hijacking” co-star Søren Malling) and facing a war crime charge.
So in contrast to “A Hijacking,” it is not survival but reputation and exoneration for which Claus subsequently must struggle. This does mean that the film has a less overtly dynamic second half in which it becomes a courtroom drama rather than a war movie. But this may be exactly where we see Lindholm’s maturation as a filmmaker most evidently: the courtroom scenes are brilliantly written, pared-back and yet realistic, providing room for all the horrible inferences and ambiguities of a split-second decision with a terrible outcome.
But while there are IED explosions in the first half and legal fireworks in the second, neither the Afghan desert nor that institutional room in Copenhagen are where the actual battleground lies. Instead the real war of “A War” is waged within Claus, with Lindholm’s camera trained mercilessly on Asbæk as he delivers yet another faultlessly committed performance, within a large ensemble in which every performer feels note-perfect. Indeed the sense of directorial sureness throughout can’t be overstated; although this is a metaphorical as well as a literal minefield, Lindholm navigates it with complete confidence — so much so that he could maybe even have widened his remit further, perhaps taken in some sense of broader Danish society or the nature of the media attention that cases like these receive. But instead we get that sense of containment and claustrophobia, so well evoked in his previous films too, only here it is a psychological cage made of blame and guilt and a helpless sort of regret: given another chance would Claus even do anything differently? Would we? Some decisions are no-win situations and it’s all you can do to limit your losses. But the question this controlled, thought-provoking drama leaves you with is – how much of that sort of moral compromise can you take before you simply lose the ability to look in the mirror and see a good person looking back. [A-/B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Venice Film Festival.