by Jeff Meyers
I'd call it Das Tank but I'm guessing an Israeli war film might not take too kindly to World War II comparisons. Still, there's much in Samuel Maoz's debut that'll call to mind Wolfgang Petersen's claustrophobic U-boat flick. Both trade in dank, grimy and claustrophobic settings, and both focus on the trembling, soot-stained faces of soldiers dealing with the surreal terrors of under-siege conditions. There's no denying the sheer visceral impact of the approach. But with 30 years separating the two films, you'd hope that Maoz would've expanded the conceit. No such luck.
Set on the first day of the war in Lebanon, we're crammed inside a rattling tank with four inexperienced Israeli soldiers who've been sent on a dangerous mission they don't understand. Their only connection to the outside world is what's on they hear on the unit radio, see through their gun sights, or learn from a brusque senior officer (Zohar Shtrauss) who drops in periodically with orders. Eventually, things run off the tactical rails as the unit gets lost in hostile territory, is forced to transport a Syrian prisoner, and must rely on the help of violent Phalangists to get them to safety. Paranoia and confusion quickly set in.
With a citizen requirement to serve in the military and surrounding countries that can be charitably called hostile, Israel's long history of modern conflict seems to be producing a small crop of Samuel Fuller-like directors, each trying to examine the wartime experiences of their youth through cinema. While Ari Folman's psychologically prismatic Waltz With Bashir took a tortured, reflective view of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Maoz trades solely in raw, you-are-there immediacy.
Except for brief bookend scenes outside the tank, unrelenting claustrophobia consumes Lebanon's 90-minute running time, physically and metaphorically heightening the soldier's psychological distress. Frayed nerves, goo dripping down broken control panels, fetid water sloshing around the floor — the tank's crushing space becomes tangible. And Maoz is very effective at maneuvering his camera and actors around the dark confines of the tank, only occasionally letting slip that they're working on a set.
In many ways, Lebanon comes off as a highly visceral stage-play that may remind some cineastes of 1988's Afghanistan-set tank movie, The Beast (based on a William Mastrosimone play entitled Nanawatai). Both deal with a lost tank crew trying to survive, and both tackled the chaotic and shifting morality of battle.
Lebanon's jumps to the outside world — as seen through the targeting viewfinder — are especially effective at raising the stakes, increasing the tension, and making clear Maoz's war-is-hell message. One scene in particular, the horror and humiliation of a woman who lost her family in combat only to have her clothing burned off, will haunt even the most callous viewer. As she wanders the rubble looking for something to cover her naked body, we can't help but feel the inherent depravity of war. Worse is the knowledge that our periscopic view brings with it the ability to destroy what we're watching with the pull of a trigger.
Though Moaz's face-hugging close-ups become a cinematic crutch, it's the shallow characterizations of his four soldiers that ultimately limit the impact of Lebanon. The men are all good in their stock roles but limited to battle reactions and barebones defining traits like cynicism, panic and innocence. We learn little about who they are, with monologues more oriented toward killing time than revealing their emotional landscape. By restricting the awfulness of war to an immersive, metacritical experience (rather than a personal one) Moaz toes the line between the universal and generic. Every encounter underlines the impossible choices a soldier has to make and then shows the unambiguously awful outcome of each. It's a formalist's approach, leaving little room for interpretation or contemplation. And without that context, Lebanon becomes little more than an impressively horrifying rollercoaster ride that doesn't end soon enough.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 1-2, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 3. It also screens at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 8-9, and at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 10.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 1-2, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 3. It also screens at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 8-9, and at 5 p.m. on S