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On Movies: 'Lebanon' clearly shows war's chaos, but obscures the combatants

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 23, 2010 - On the technical level, “Lebanon” is an extraordinary film. Almost every moment of the harrowing Israeli feature takes place inside a tank invading Lebanon in the 1982 war, a tank under siege and eventually crippled by mostly unseen and unknown forces. Except for a few fragmentary shots of the exterior of the Israeli tank, the only way we are shown what is going on outside is through the vehicle’s scope, which moves jerkily, with a maniacal shriek of protesting machinery.

The scope shows us a jumble of action, misleading slices of bombed-out buildings and the corpses of civilians and soldiers. At night, the scope reveals little more than green blurs, some of them moving. We are as lost as the crew inside the vehicle.

The film focuses – intently – on these four men, crammed inside the filthy, claustrophobic tank. From the beginning of the narrative, as the soldiers are given orders to advance toward a place ironically named “St. Tropez,” they argue with each other over almost everything – the exact nature of their orders, the hierarchy of their relationship to one another, the sickeningly squalid conditions inside the pressure cooker of the tank.

From time to time, an officer named Jamil (Zohar Strauss) will descend from the turret and scream at the men for not following orders – as when a gunner couldn’t bring himself to fire on a group that included civilians. Meanwhile, confusing and contradictory orders come in from time to time by radio from a command post that seems to have no idea where the tank actually is, nor where it should be. Very little makes sense, and the men are increasingly confused, and increasingly terrified.

There is no question that this Kafkaesque, unrelentingly horrific Israeli film, which won the top prize at the Venice film festival, succeeds in viscerally conveying the message that war is hell and tank warfare is hell on wheels. And the film certainly shows us that soldiers in a war zone can be violently inhumane. However, unlike such movies as “The Hurt Locker” and “Waltz with Bashir” -- the latter also by an Israeli -- “Lebanon” fails to present us with characters we care about – we learn very little about the four soldiers inside the tank, and one man’s extended reminiscence about finding sexual comfort at a family funeral seems forced.

Writer-director Samuel Moaz succeeds brilliantly in shooting a cohesive film inside a tiny space. But he fails to bring us into the film on the human level. The soldiers, their faces smeared with dirt and grease, at times barely lit, never emerge from the darkness as individuals we can care deeply about.

Opens Friday, Sept. 24

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies. 

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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