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Lebanon
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Lebanon – Review

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

At the start of Israel’s 1982 war against Lebanon, a young tank commander leads three untested young soldiers into battle.

From the moment we see the tank disappear into the sunflower fields, we don’t see the outside again – now, we are travelling with the soldiers, experiencing the war through their eyes.

Cramped in the cabin, a pool of oil and water on the floor, with only a portable metal box as a toilet, they head towards a village that’s just been attacked by Israeli warplanes. Their task is to make sure the airstrike was a success.

First, along the road, the gunner fails to fire at an oncoming vehicle. The result is the death of one of the foot-soldiers the tank is meant to be protecting. So next time, he fires on sight and an innocent Lebanese farmer is blown to smithereens.

With each slow and deliberate roll of the caterpillar tracks as the tank inches into Lebanese territory, the young soldiers find it harder to cope with the stress, the pressure and the responsibility they have.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

This is a powerful war film that passes no comment on the politics but gives an insight into what it must be like to be at the sharp end.

For his first feature film, Samuel Maoz has built on his own memories from the same period, bringing tremendous authenticity to the horrific experiences of being a small fish in the big pond of war.

A rocket attack on their tank causes almost irreparable damage. Their commander makes them guard the Syrian who fired the rocket, chaining him up inside the tank, using up valuable oxygen. The Christian phalangists who are meant to be leading them to safety let them down. Nothing goes right, but there’s no escape. As the Israeli soldiers move deeper into Lebanon, they become prisoners in their own tank.

As a study of what it’s like to be a junior soldier, shot entirely within the cabin of the tank (the only view of what’s going on outside is through the gun sights), this is remarkable. But as a piece of story telling, it’s too much of a relentless chain of one thing going wrong after another. True, as I’m sure it is, it doesn’t feel compelling, because there’s no way out for them – they just have to roll with the events, which stunts the drama.

So most of the emotions come from the claustrophobia and the bristling character differences, between the nervous tank commander, desperate to be able to enforce his authority, the supercilious gun loader, the inexperienced gun man and driver (who just wants his mother to know he’s OK), their no-nonsense overall commander (who’s more fearsome than any unseen enemy can possibly be), their helpless prisoner and the ruthless phalangists.

While visually impressive and fresh, it does become a little tiresome, spending the whole film cramped up in the tank with these tired, bickering soldiers, with powerful weaponry at their fingertips. I’m sure it’s what it’s like to be involved in a war. But we’re cinemagoers, not soldiers. Once we’ve got a sense of what it’s like, that’s probably enough. We need more of a story or even a hint of a message to engage us.

If the message is “war sucks,” tell us something we don’t know. It was probably the right thing to do not to tackle the politics, as that would have led to certain unnecessary controversy.

An obvious comparison would be with the recent festival hit Waltz With Bashir, which was more thought provoking and visually striking.

Lebanon is a clever, powerful first-time outing for Maoz, that’s been praised and honoured at festivals such as Venice, but it’s not a particularly rewarding film, as would be suggested by the fact that at the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars, it won the awards for art direction, cinematography and sound, but not for writing, directing or best film.

Opens nationwide 14th May 2010

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