Judge Clark Douglas wrote this entire review while inside an Israeli tank.
Our review of Lebanon, published March 26th, 2011, is also available.
A view of the outside from the inside.
"Just fire a shell straight into the engine."
Facts of the Case
It's June 1982—The First Lebanon War. A group of Israeli soldiers have been given the task of taking a tank into a small town and cleaning up after an Israeli air raid. Unfortunately, things turn out to be much more chaotic and violent than they expect upon their arrival. The men inside the tank are the driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov), loader Herzl (Oshri Cohen), gunner Shmuel (Yoav Donat) and tank commander Assi (Itay Tiran). Despite some tensions in the group, these men must band together in order to survive the terrifying day ahead of them.
I'm very much of two minds about the much-acclaimed Lebanon. On one level, it's a masterfully crafted, deeply personal, genuinely harrowing portrait of war that ranks as one of the most uniquely cringe-inducing war films I've ever seen. On another level, it's an irritatingly mawkish, gimmicky film which shamelessly exploits our emotions.
Let me begin by focusing on the positive elements. After all, I'm hesitant to say anything negative about the film, as it was unquestionably a labor of love for writer/director Samuel Maoz (making his cinematic debut). The story is largely based on Maoz's own experiences as a gunner in the First Lebanon War (Yoav Donat's character is more or less based on Maoz) and it took him nearly 30 years to bring the project to completion. Lebanon isn't just a movie; it's a life's work.
That's evident in the filmmaking, as Maoz's attention to detail throughout Lebanon is nothing short of remarkable. The fact that the entire thing is taking place within a confined space has drawn many comparisons to Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot, but honestly this film has a greater deal of tension and terror up its sleeve. Maoz captures the suffocating claustrophobia of the tank superbly; particularly during the later scenes in which the metallic beast will barely run and seems to be crumbling piece by piece. The film feels cramped from the beginning and is unmercifully crushing by the conclusion.
The dialogue scenes between the men in the tank rank as highlights of the movie, as Maoz skillfully captures the complexities of these men and their frustrations with each other. Assi is technically the tank commander, but he seems incapable of receiving much respect from his men (or anyone else, for that matter). Yigal's terrified at the prospect of having to engage in violence, while Herzl feels his difficult task as a loader is too frequently dismissed as simple work. The violence around them occasionally heightens the tension, but after a certain point it seems to push them closer together. Realizing that these may be the final moments of their life, the men become willing to share their most intimate secrets with each other.
Setting the film entirely inside the tank becomes the film's greatest strength and weakness. Maoz admittedly does a lot of excellent things with this idea, from the way he uses the cramped location to develop the characters to the masterful sound design (during the early scenes in particular, scenes of horrific chaos are merely muffled thumps and bumps for the men inside the mighty tank). However…well, give me just a moment and I'll tell you.
One more positive thing before we get to that: Lebanon is given a solid 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. The film only gets a chance to offer eye-popping visuals on a few occasions (the opening and closing moments, plus some of the conflicts seen through the tank early on), but during those moments the level of detail and clarity is stunning. Inside the tank, things are intentionally dark, muddy and grimy, but the sturdy depth assures that it never becomes incomprehensible. Shadow delineation could have been a little better, though. What really impresses is the audio, which captures this complex track with spellbinding clarity. Though the first half of the film is largely a subdued affair (often surprisingly so), the last twenty minutes or so represent an all-out assault on your speaker system. It's masterfully done and greatly increases the effectiveness of the film. The only supplements are a making-of featurette called "Notes on a War Film" (25 minutes) and a trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Here's the thing: after a short time, I started wanting to throw something at the screen every time one of the soldiers looked through the scope at what was happening outside. While everything taking place inside the tank is intensely realistic, apparently the world's most clichéd war drama is raging around them. You would think there would be a lot of mundane, uninteresting things to see even in the midst of conflict. But no, everything witnessed from inside the tank is some sort of striking image that makes a profound statement about war. *zoom* "Look, it's a man whose arms and legs have been blown off shouting the words, 'peace, peace, peace!'" *zoom* "Look, it's a poster of the twin towers. That doesn't have any political significance yet because it's only 1982, but it will someday!" *zoom* "Look, a woman is running naked through the streets, crying because we accidentally killed her child!" *zoom* "Look, a wounded donkey is on the ground. Tears are falling from his eyes. He weeps because of war!"
These images aren't wrong-headed in and of themselves (well, I'm not sure a crying donkey would have worked under any circumstances), but the fact that everything we see on the outside falls into this category severely damages the film's credibility. I was moved by the first few images like this, but it starts to feel suspiciously exploitative very quickly. It's very nearly enough to prevent me from recommending this otherwise high-quality film.
If you can get past the frustration of the contrived melodrama it occasionally delivers (and I'm honestly not sure that I can), Lebanon has a lot of value to offer. I respect it for what it is, but had it taken a slightly different approach this could have been one of the great war films.
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