Sony // 2009 // 94 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // March 26th, 2011
Man is steel...the tank is only iron.
In June of 1982, the war for Lebanon began. In 2009, Israeli director Samuel Maoz realized his ambition of telling the story of his experiences in that horrible war. Lebanon is a bold work, an acclaimed production that attempts to share a new perspective on a war often overlooked. Does it live up to the art house hype?
On June 6, 1982, the first day of the conflict in Lebanon, an Israeli tank crew of four, barely old enough to be called men, brings its tank into a small remote village. Tasked with cleaning up the remnants of a bombing run, the crew stumbles upon a realm of chaos and violence, witnessed through a gun sight from within the bowels of the metal beast.
Lebanon is a daring, bold vision of a film, of that there is no doubt. Few films have delved into the fertile fields of the Lebanon conflict (The only other that I've seen is the fantastic Waltz With Bashir), and fewer war films in general are actually firsthand accounts told by veterans of the conflict. Samuel Maoz was 20 years old in 1982 when his tank crew joined the fight, and the tank's gunner in the film is drawn from Maoz's own experiences.
Borrowing more from Das Boot than Saving Private Ryan, the film's first daring step is never taking us out of the tank. An interesting idea to be sure, it creates more intimacy with the characters, allowing us, as viewers to identify with them more strongly than we normally might. It also keeps the scale rather small. When we see the action of the war raging outside, even then it is through the perspective of the four young men trapped inside their tank. It's a story that is deeply personal to the director, relayed as only someone who experienced it could possibly relay. It's a harrowing production that really succeeds in getting under your skin and making you feel what these poor men are feeling. That said, it is certainly not for everyone.
Sony presents a nice anamorphic transfer that captures all of the darkness, grime, and grit of the film with solid black levels and harsh colors. The image gets a little soft at times, but overall the disc looks perfectly passable. The bleak, desaturated color occasionally gives way to bright sunny visuals, and the transfer does a fine job all around. The audio kicks about the speakers and suitably booms when it has to. The quiet and the chaos all come through clearly, and voices are free of distortion. This is about as good a package as you could expect.
For extras we get a 25-minute featurette that features a pile of "fly on the wall" style footage shot during the production. It's a vaguely interesting look at the making of the feature, but it doesn't offer a whole lot in the way of insight. The only other extra is the film's trailer.
This review was a monster to write. Not because I couldn't collect thoughts or because I had trouble putting pen to paper, but because it took me so damned long to get through the film. I think I may have started and stopped Lebanon at least a half a dozen times, attempting to get through it. It's not that the film is boring or terribly executed, but that it's just so damned frustrating. Being claustrophobic myself, the film just became more and more oppressive as the run time went on, and by the final reel, I found myself squirming and flinching at every shot from within the slowly dying tank. The dank, wet, atmosphere was simply an astounding achievement, to the point that it played on my own psychological feelings about enclosed spaces.
Then there's the "gun sight" photography that serves as our window into the outside world. I understand the reasoning, but this gimmick served to frustrate and confound me even further. For starters, it felt like I was watching the film with blinders, like I was being cheapened out of seeing an actual "motion picture" and more like I was viewing a Unicef commercial. On top of that, each and every image shown to us through our tank crew's "make dead cam" is one of profound importance and contrived melodramatic suffering. We get nice, intimate glimpses of rape, murder, mutilation, and basically every wartime atrocity you can imagine; all overlaid with the cheesy gun sight filter. After the first 10 or 15 minutes of the film I just found myself wishing that the camera, if not the characters, could just step outside that goddamn tank for five minutes, have a smoke break or something.
Sure, many will appreciate exactly what Maoz was going for, a cathartic, realistic look at what he must have experienced himself, but for me, I actually would have preferred something more traditional. I'm sure the soldiers depicted didn't enjoy themselves, but as a viewer, I felt like I was pounding head and fists on the lid of the tank shouting, "Let me out! Let me out!" over and over and over...Again, probably exactly what the director intended...brilliant!
Lebanon is a challenging, unflinching film; it's grimy, claustrophobic setting and the bleak nature of the conflict it explores will definitely divide viewers. I can appreciate what the film is trying to accomplish, but the I found the "gun sight" gimmick diminishes from the effort, and makes a difficult watch all that much more challenging. Still, there's a war here that few people have seen explored in such fashion, and Sony's disc is a great effort.
The jury is torn on this one.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Hebrew)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R