Lebanon is an Israeli film that played in U.S. theaters for a few weeks last summer. For those who missed its initial release, it just came out on DVD and is worth catching. While not the absolute masterpiece that some of my fellow critics have claimed, it is a very good film that boasts the ability to milk unbearable suspense out of war film cliches. Set during the First Lebanon War, it tells the story of an Israeli tank crew. Shmulik (Yoav Donat) is the gunner and the new member of the crew. Assi (Itay Tiran) is the ineffectual leader who fails to command the respect of his men. Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) is the ammunition loader and the closest thing in the film to a live wire—his constant challenging of Assi’s authority quickly becomes a nuisance for everyone in the tank. The final member of the crew is Yigal (Michael Moshonov), the quiet driver who tries to stay out of everyone’s way.
Accompanying a squad of paratroopers into enemy territory, the tank moves into an urban area where it’s hard to tell the difference between civilians and fighters. Most of the film is seen through Shmulik’s scope as he scans the area for fighters. But Shmulik is fresh from training where the only thing he was asked to shoot were barrels. When he is faced with firing on a truck full of enemy fighters, he freezes, focusing on the panicked face of the driver which, through the scope, looks to be only inches away. Despite repeated calls to shoot, he cannot do so and this action results in a firefight that finds not only the enemy dead but also one of the Israeli soldiers. With no way to evacuate the body from the area, Jamil (Zohar Strauss), the major in charge of the operation, orders the body placed in the tank. This is done as much as a punishment to Shmulik as it is for pragmatic reasons. Inevitably, the next truck that comes along is not the enemy but still pays the price for Shmulik’s inability to fire on the first truck.
The story is one we’ve seen many times before. It simply morphs from a film of “men on a mission” to one of “trapped behind enemy lines.” But for the most part writer/director Samuel Maoz is not interested in plot. He was a member of a tank crew in the First Lebanon War, and this experience informs every frame of the film as he focuses on the smallest of details. From the myriad indignities of being stuffed inside a tank (the heat, dehydration, claustrophobia, choking fumes, and being forced to urinate in metal boxes) to the horrors of war (fear of the unknown, confusion of battle, grisly sight of mangled bodies), Maoz keeps the film uncomfortably intimate. Taking cues from claustrophobic war film classics like Das Boot and Kanal, Lebanon isn’t a film you watch so much as smell and feel. “Everyone knows war is hell,” Maoz seems to be saying, “but did you know it smells like smoke, blood, and shit?”
While it may be obvious, this intentional demythologizing of warfare is the only overarching message that Maoz seems intent on exploring. He avoids any political statement about the situation in the Middle East that led to the war and, aside from one extremely heavy-handed shot (the only point that Maoz loses firm control of the tone), there is no reference to the numerous problems the region has seen since the war. All that matters in the film is that war is a dehumanizing, horrible experience that no one should find entertaining. This is reinforced by the constant use of seeing the war through Shmulik’s scope. This perspective gives much of the film the same look as a first person shooter video game. But unlike a video game, much of what is shown is horrific or mundane, never exciting or fun.
If this doesn’t exactly sound entertaining, that’s because it isn’t. It’s a film that I find myself reluctantly recommending. Despite the familiar genre tropes on display, it manages to carve out its own identity through Maoz’s stellar direction and solid work by the cast. It’s effective at what it wants to do, but that’s also where it becomes difficult to watch. It’s a film that deserves to be seen, just don’t expect a popcorn flick.
Matt Wedge is a film reviewer, New Haven resident, and co-founder of The Parallax Review, a totally awesome film criticism site.