Verdict: “A War” delivers hard-hitting moral conundrums but takes its time working up to them.
I say it now, for public record: I’m all about that slow burn. The more time I get to spend with a film’s characters, really getting inside their heads and fleshing them out as people before stuff starts blowing up, the happier I am. So when I saw the trailer for “A War”, Denmark’s Best Foreign Language Film nominee, I freaked. A war movie, but they go to court. There’s gonna be emotional turmoil and savory philosophical disputes, and we’re gonna experience it all through these characters slaughtering each other with evidence instead of bullets, and it’s gonna say a lot about war and we’re gonna know them all so well and it’s gonna be great.
Unfortunately, I misjudged the trailer. By a lot. While the last act floweth with its share of philosophical juices, “A War” spends a lot of time in standard-war-flick mode. Company commander and all around good guy Claus Pederson (Pilou Asbæk) is stationed in Afghanistan, while his good natured wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) and their three children navigate the domestic troubles of a military family back in Denmark. A basic set up, we’ve seen it before, that’s fine (I think to myself, still imagining military lawyers wielding precedents as machine gun substitutes.) Problem is, that set up sticks around for too long and doesn’t provide enough substance to warrant its run. The film wants to build to its moral dilemma, wants to earn its ending, which I respect, but it drags as we follow these thoroughly good folks who seem incapable of making mistakes. Showing us angels so we feel the full weight of the film’s moral ambiguity is a smart tactic in general, but it’s boring to see so much of it here, staying with them to nearly the halfway point before Claus makes a mistake and finds himself accused of a war crime.
Director Tobias Lindholm concerns himself with the details of his story, which is both a fault and a saving grace. He strives to present Afghanistan like soldiers really experience it, slow days punctuated by spontaneous brutality, faceless villains. On the one hand, this style adds to the slowness, since most of the time that entails watching Claus be nice to his soldiers and Maria play with the kids. Thankfully, it also gives us the awesomely disorienting real-time battle sequences that sporadically shake up the drudgery. Early on a character dies by land mine; I squirmed in the best way, truly horrified and absorbed by the pain. These kept me feeling all the way to the courtroom, where the good stuff finally kicks in, and by “good stuff” I mean lawyers debating ethical quandaries. Here, the film’s level headedness proves to have been a touch too successful, privileging an even hand over emotional investment. The lawyers I so longed for had their screentime, presented their cases. Accusations made, precedent semi-wielded, but with so much evenness that I never feared any metaphorical bloodshed. I cared, but I cared because defining what’s acceptable in war is tricky and interesting, not because I wanted Claus to go home to his kids. I could’ve read a book about military ethics and cared as much. Instead I watched “A War”, felt my interest in the characters melt and occasionally feared death. So, eh.
Here is the trailer. See how dumb I was to put so much stock in the courtroom thing.