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Baltimore City Paper

Israeli war film traps viewers inside the minds and eyes of an invading tank unit

Lebanon

Directed by Samuel Maoz

Opens Sept. 17 at the Charles Theatre

Writer/director Samuel Maoz's

debut feature opens with young Israeli Defense Force tank gunner Shmulik (Yoav Donat) lowering himself into the armored vehicle in which his life will be irrevocably changed. He doesn’t know that yet though. All he can do is acclimate to his new setting and peers. Tank commander Assi (Itay Tiran) and ammunition loader Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) appear to know each other, as there’s no other reason why a superior would put up with Hertzel’s garrulous impudence. Yigal (Michael Moshonov) is relatively quiet in comparison as he sits is his driver’s seat. They’re not so much sardined together as acutely aware of how close they are, but there’s still room for others to join them—such as infantry squad leader Jamil (Zohar Strauss), who tells them what they’re about to do: guard a road and then push through a town en route to a rallying point in a secure area. It’ll be a walk in the park, Jamil assures them. They’ll leave at dawn, June 6, 1982. The day Israel invades Lebanon.

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Maoz’s movie is less a traditional war flick than an endurance test, as it spends nearly every second of its 93 minutes inside the close quarters of the tank. What lies beyond is seen only through the cross-haired viewfinder. They hear the outside world muffled through the tank’s sturdy walls. They communicate with the infantry and command post through the radio, sounding in the camp like a disembodied voice-over. Their war experience is this compact, dank imprisonment inside a gun-metal gray cell. The tank wheezes smoke, sputters and coughs to a start, howls when being driven, and leaks water and other fluids. The floor is a mountain of food wrappers, beverage cans, cigarette butts, and other debris. And everyone micturates into the same box.

As Ari Folman’s memories steered

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Waltz With Bashir

, Maoz’s guide

Lebanon

: He was in one such tank that first day, and he’s able to capture the whiplash mix of terror, anxiety, anticipation, and confusion of young soldiers’ first war experiences. The mission quickly and brusquely becomes a war movie’s familiar world of shit, as the tank’s first two encounters entirely recalibrate the unit’s senses. Shmulik hesitates to fire the first time a car approaches the tank and infantry squad, resulting in the death of an Israeli soldier. He doesn’t hesitate the second time a vehicle approaches, and when he sees the aftermath he’s not sure what he feels worse about—and he has no time to waste thinking about it. Very soon, the tank and squad wind up off course in a Syrian-occupied portion of the city, and this walk in the park turns into a fight for survival.

Like

The Hurt Locker

,

Lebanon

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favors soldier subjectivity over big-picture politics, but that doesn’t mean it shies away from convenient symbolism. Through the tank’s viewfinder, Maoz’s camera catches accessible emotions: a donkey wounded and dying in the street, a mother in shock over the loss of her husband and daughter, a poster featuring the Twin Towers in a bombed-out travel office; after the tank takes a hit, the viewfinder cracks, such that they’re literally looking at a fractured world.

It’s a blunt attempt at poetics that extends to the movie’s dialogue.

Lebanon

’s verbal military shorthand dubs the tank “Rhino,” the squad “Cinderella,” helicopters “angels,” and Israeli army casualties “flowers.” And in the movie’s finest example of inane double speak, phosphorous bombs are banned, and subsequently renamed “flaming smoke,” which isn’t.

The experience is by turns harrowing and tense, but that also seems to be the movie’s only point—the familiar refrain about war and hell. The 1982 Lebanon War has been called Israel’s Vietnam for so long that the comparison feels a little wan, each a historical conflict mediated through media events and socially processed through entertainments. Maybe it’s a matter of degrees: Starting in the 1970s American movies mined Vietnam for the following 20 years, while only in the past few years have Israeli movies about the Lebanon War started to hit American theaters. After a few more movies like

Lebanon

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, a better cinematic understanding of the war might take shape. At the moment, though,

Lebanon

delivers a powerful soldier’s-eye-view of war, but it’s a picture—soldiers in a foreign land fighting an enemy they can’t always identify and dealing with the psychological trauma of causing civilian casualties—that unfortunately feels and looks way too much like headlines from the past seven years.


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