The war in Afghanistan has not inspired many films. Botched, ambiguous, and unresolved, it is a conflict, like those in Vietnam and Iraq, we’d rather forget.
Not so the Danes. This kind of war was a new experience for them. Perhaps for that reason, they have produced two of the best films about contemporary Afghanistan — Susanne Bier’s “Brothers” (2004) and Tobias Lindholm’s “A War.” The latter, one this year’s foreign-language Oscar nominees, may also be among the best war movies of all time.
The opening scene, a squad patrolling a craggy wasteland, is reminiscent of similar situations in Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (2008). It evokes weariness adrenalized with terror and then an IED explodes.
The men complain to their commander Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek) that their mission seems pointless. One soldier begs to be sent home.
To bolster their morale, Pedersen accompanies them into the war zone, a decision his second-in-command Najib Bisma (Dar Salim) questions as being a distraction to his greater responsibilities. Bisma’s concern proves well-founded, as in a harrowing combat scene, Pedersen is forced to choose between the lives of his men and the duties of his mission. He ends up shipped back home to face a military court.
“A War” differs significantly from “The Hurt Locker” (2008) in its depiction of the home front. Unlike Bigelow’s film, in which the hero’s domestic situation is seen only briefly at the end, in “A War” Pedersen is in constant contact with his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny in a nuanced, powerful performance) and children by phone and skype. We can see the toll his absence has taken on his family. But matters do not improve after he returns.
At this point, “A War” takes a turn into another genre — the courtroom (or, more specifically, the court martial) drama. As in similar films such as “The Caine Mutiny” (1954) and “A Few Good Men” (1992), the purpose of the trial is not to determine the real truth, but to devise an acceptable, official version of it. Whether he opts for his duty to family and friends or his professional, ethical obligations, Pedersen will suffer. Every time he looks at his children, he will also recall the image of all those less fortunate children in Afghanistan for whom he must bear responsibility.
Directed and written by Tobias Lindholm. Starring Pilou Asbæk, Tuva Novotny, Søren Malling, and Dar Salim. At Kenmore Square. 115 minutes. Unrated (war’s cruelty; irresolvable moral conflict).