by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. Samuel Maoz, Israel, Sony Pictures Classics
Lebanon is the latest in the long line of films reliant on confined spaces and/or confined perspective gimmicks (The Lady in the Lake, Lifeboat, etc.). While on its very thin surface Samuel Maoz's feature debut takes Israel’s ill-considered 1982 invasion of Lebanon as its subject, the film is more Rear Window than Platoon, and gives new meaning to the phrase “theater of war”: Maoz evokes combat largely through first-person point of view, emphasizing battle as something to be processed through perception. Since it takes place almost entirely inside a tank, what we see of the mostly urban battlefields of Lebanon (with Tel Aviv substituting for the title country) is relayed through a cross-haired turret sight that alternates between wide shot and telescoped close-up, a cinematic POV assumed by Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the tank’s jittery, hesitant gunman.
The carnage within Shmulik’s field of vision immediately causes him trauma, and Maoz’s approach to making palpable the untranslatable violence of war is to force us to watch our onscreen spectator surrogate become irreversibly marked by everything that sears his retina—the eye itself is often captured in through-a-peephole close-ups expressing the looker’s fascination and repulsion. When the action begins in a field outside a Lebanese city, Shmulik is at first too scared to fire directly at an enemy vehicle headed straight toward the tank, a freeze-up that leads to the death of a fellow Israeli soldier. In order to compensate for his botched job—the dead body of his comrade is dumped into the tank for purposes of transportation, but also as a reminder of his responsibility—Shmulik soon after fires on an innocent chicken farmer left limbless and wailing. Shmulik is only scarred further.
Such obvious ironies occur far too frequently in Lebanon, but before they form a conspicuous motif Maoz proves his shortcomings with several stylistic risks. His inability to successfully employ his strict POV structure occurs in the film’s most troubling scene, as the tank rolls through urban streets populated by destroyed shops, dead bodies, and shell-shocked citizens to perform a sweep of any hostile elements left over by an Air Force attack that previously bombed the city back to the stone age. A Lebanese family is held hostage in an apartment with blown out walls. The captors kill most of the family before being shot down themselves; the only survivor is a mother (Reymonde Amsellem) who runs out of the apartment screaming for her lost daughter. We watch this from Shmulik’s periscopic viewpoint as the woman cries for help but only receives cold rebuffs from the Israeli soldiers still staking out the apartment complex. The action is carefully blocked and coordinated so that the camera intently follows the woman and places her at the center of the frame at each moment, a directorial choice that irrevocably conflates the target sight with the camera eye.
It’s possible that Shmulik would be so profoundly stunned by this scene that he would pay rapt attention to the woman’s every movement—eventually her dress is torn away by a soldier who saves her from flames climbing her clothes, leaving her naked and shivering under a hastily provided blanket—at the expense of the area he was assigned to scope out. But any realism, and thus effective drama, is greatly compromised by Maoz’s decision to artificially foreground the spotlighted drama’s visibility over a larger chaotic environment that never quite comes alive. The action feels stagy and contrived because the first-person POV remains just that—rather than an external reality unfolding and simultaneously contemplated, they are POV Shots in screenplay caps. Ultimately, Maoz has not persuaded us to identify with Shmulik, whose characteristics are barely distinguishable from his tank-mates: Asi (Itay Tiran), the tank’s constantly challenged and then mentally shaken leader; Hertzel (Oshri Cohen), the complaining, common-sense missile loader forced to assume authority; and Yigal (Michael Moshonov), the shy fallen soldier. The attempt at creating a visceral experience of war by way of point-of-view alignment cannot be sustained if we’re not empathetically aligned with the character’s point of view, and simply directing the viewer’s eye at atrocities to give us a feel of what it’s like could never compensate for that.
Lebanonisn’t all first-person, of course, but Maoz’s other ideas are even less successful—the film is a minefield of on-the-nose “messages” about the horror and absurdity of war. A shady deal between Israeli soldiers and Muslim-hating Phalangists is struck in front of a gigantic poster of the World Trade Center; Shmulik deflates a conversation about death by telling a Saving Private Ryan–esque anecdote of hormonal adolescent hi-jinks involving his father’s passing and a consoling but arousing schoolteacher; a soldier who asks his C.O. to telephone his mother to tell her he’s okay meets a predictably ironic fate at film’s conclusion. There’s something of the old-fashioned combat flick in all these obvious generic markers, but they’re stale rather than retro-classical.
The only convincing aspect of the film (Maoz based Lebanon on his own stint in the war) is its honest and unsentimental portrayal of macho camaraderie: fragile, frayed, and divisive. Compared to the depiction of laconically numbed Israelis who’ve seen too much in last year’s celebrated Waltz With Bashir, the crew of Lebanon openly and awkwardly expresses fear, confusion, and anger in yelling matches and defiant gestures; their feelings are stirred as much by incompetent and international law-violating leadership (personified by the one major character frequently seen outside the tank, the take-no-shit Jamil, played by Zohar Strauss) as by the enormous pressure of combat.
Such vulnerability and fallibility isn’t insignificant. Showing the Israeli armed forces arguing pettily over who should stand guard and forgo the half hour of sleep accorded them before their mission, or showing unwitting soldiers look on while a Phalangist (Ashraf Barhom) intimidates a captured Syrian (Dudu Tassa) with threats of torture, amounts to a profound admittance of how even one of the world’s toughest militaries is composed of naïve, ill-prepared, and frightened kids (incognizant of the geopolitical forces at work in their mission, one Israeli must ask what a Phalangist even is). The film’s last scene thus hints Maoz can build on theme and transcend the by-the-numbers war movie he’s wrapped in a clever formal conceit. In it a soldier helps the Syrian urinate into a box—waste removal is an unignorable dilemma within such a confined space—as the tank stops in a field of sunflowers. This bond forged by scared enemies through the basest of human functions is poignantly, even subtly, handled here. It’s a simple point, but the only one in Lebanon that rings true.