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June, 1982 - The First Lebanon War. A lone tank and a infantry platoon are dispatched to search a hostile town - a simple mission that turns into a nightmare. The four members of a tank crew find themselves in a violent situation that they cannot handle. Motivated by fear and the basic instinct of survival, they desperately try not to lose themselves in the most emblematic act of uncivilized problem solving: war. Written by
Vivid and visceral, but not the best of the Lebanese war films
The film presents a concentrated and specific indictment of war through presenting innocent and unwilling young men who are unquestionably brave under fire, but virtually helpless in a dicey and deteriorating situation. Such an anti-war arc is more effectively used in Bernard Wicki's extraordinary 1959 German anti-war film Die Brucke, also about a doomed squad of young men, because the latter provides fuller backstories for each man. Maoz's young actors are vivid and believable. Shmulik (Yuav Donat), Assi (Itay Tiran), Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) and Yigal (Michael Moshonov), the crew; Jamil (Zohar Staruss), their arrogant (and hitherto unfamiliar) superior officer; or their Syrian captive (Dudu Tassa); and the several others are all good. But they only appear to us in the tank as the operation begins; it all takes place in a few hours, and there is no time to provide back-stories; they are appealing but somewhat generic.
Despite his personal experience (25 years ago) in the 1982 war, some of Maoz's writing falls prey to clichés of the oversensitive rookie, the brusque superior officer, the insistence of bodily needs, and so on. A lot of the dialogue seems stagy, even though this staging trumps anything you could do in a theater.
'Lebanon' is nonetheless a superb piece of film-making and no mere tour de force, because it all takes place within a tank, but DP Giora Bejach, as Maoz puts it, was "two photographers," depicting the events inside but also shooting through the tank's sights so we see the world outside as the crew sees it, including several devastating scenes in which Lebanese civilians are ravaged, humiliated and killed -- in particular a mother (Raymonde Ansellem) keening over her dead little daughter whose dress catches fire, leaving her naked. This is far more shocking than any of the provocations in Lars von Trier's 'Antichrist,' which seem contrived and calculated in comparison. Lebanon is very fine in its resolution of the problem of the claustrophobic setting.
The film exposes the Israeli violation of international law. The tank crew is told that a town has been bombed, and their job is to accompany troops who are going in to wipe out anyone left alive in it. The commander repeatedly orders the bomber to use white phosphorus bombs, but says they're illegal so they will call them "flaming smoke."
Action in the tank is specific and compelling. These guys are little more than boys. The newest member is the gunner. He admits he's shot only at "barrels" before this, and when the time comes to shoot, he can't pull the trigger, with disastrous results. What happens when you're in a tank and can't leave it, but it becomes disabled in enemy territory? In 'Lebanon' you find out.
I differ with Derek Elley's view (in VARIETY) that this film is superior to 'Beaufort' and 'Waltz with Bashir.' Both provide a a larger context on the war; the "visceral" vividness of the young men's experience doesn't compensate for this lack. I'm also surprised VARIETY says this film "has the least to do with Lebanon per se," and "could be set in any tank, any country." Mr. Elley seems to have forgotten about the Lebanese civilians as well as Arabic-speaking "terrorists" (the IDF term for the enemy) who are very vividly seen in this film, and not in the two others, both of which, however, are excellent films. They're all good, and all have severe shortcomings as views of the Lebanese war.
Maoz won the Golden Lion in Venice for this directorial debut. Sony will distribute the film in the US. Seen as a part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center 2009.
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