The best movies reveal their intentions with time; others feel the need to shout them up front. Stephane Brize’s middling social justice drama “At War” falls into the latter camp. The talky movie finds Laurent Amedeo (Brize regular Vincent Lindon) leading a protest from factory workers after the company decides to close the site, but a Bertolt Brecht quote makes the story arc clear before a single frame: “He who fights, can lose. He who doesn’t fight, has already lost.” While the sincerity of that sentiment may register, it’s an awfully obvious framing device and the movie follows suit.
“At War” starts in medias res, as Laurent and other co-workers feud with representatives from Perrin Industrie, a German-based automotive supplies company, demanding to know why the company would lay off 1,100 French employees while reporting profits at an all-time high. There’s a lot of grimacing, scowls, and back-and-forth debates about line items and budgetary concerns — the usual hand-wringing of penny-pinching companies. Here, that bickering becomes the whole show. Though salvaged in parts by Lindon’s impassioned performance and a few perceptive asides that hint at a better version of the events, “At War” is mostly a redundant portrait of working-class struggles that does more to belittle the efforts of its subjects than position them in galvanizing terms.
At their office in anticipation of the shutdown, Laurent and some of his co-workers (who tend to blur together) conceive of aggressive tactics to gain the attention of company executives. News reports capture their lively protests and center on their demands: They want to sit down with the CEO, or they’ll stop working before the factory shuts down. While some of the workers resist the idea of stirring more trouble, potentially ruining their capacity to find new jobs, Laurent’s adamant that it’s worth the risk. It’s a high-stakes gamble that plays out in fairly straightforward terms. As cinematographer Eric Dumont’s jittery camera hovers around these developments in tight quarters, “At War” strives for urgency. However, Brizé resists providing much backstory for Laurent until the closing moments; in a more-involving work, that could imply the extent to which he’s defined by his professional gamble. Instead, it turns him into an empty vessel for the movie’s bleeding-heart sympathies.
This is familiar turf for Brizé, whose 2016 “The Measure of a Man” also starred Lindon as a blue-collar man divided between his allegiances. In that case, however, the stakes had a more intimate resonance since the character — a fired factory worker who scores a gig as a security guard — was forced to choose between crossing moral boundaries and keeping his job or returning to unemployment. “At War” serves as a kind of CliffNotes to diplomatic frustrations in personal hardships, but it often feels like a docudrama in search of a substantial core. It nearly gets there, 90 minutes into the two-hour-plus running time, when Laurent scores his big sit-down with the CEO and discovers that the villain is just a bland, disinterested overlord. Sensible discussion — and negotiation tactics — quickly deteriorate into macho posturing, and the violent climax speaks volumes about the underlying disconnect between the workers’ values and the company’s in the bottom-line interests.
But none of this makes Laruent or his colleagues particularly complex figures. An hour into the movie, they finally go to a bar, where the feuds continue. A fleeting bittersweet moment toward the end complicates Laurent’s backstory and puts his passion in context, so it’s a wonder the moment doesn’t arrive sooner, especially when the factory workers’ dialogue turns on bland clichés. (As their in-fighting continues, one of them shouts, “We need to stay united!” That’s about as sophisticated as their conversations get.) By the time “At War” arrives at a shocking, tragic finale, it feels like a tacked-on act of desperation.
“At War” falls short of justifying its own existence, and provides a reminder that these scenarios work best when they find intimate hooks. This is the bread-and-butter of Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, whose visions of working-class strife come together under taut, involving scenarios of determined characters risking everything to fix their lives. It’s a theme that resonates for millions, but the problem with “At War” isn’t its sincerity so much as the way it takes its central ideas for granted. After the Brecht quote, everything else feels like an afterthought.
“At War” premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival in Official Competition. It is currently seeking distribution.