A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, November 4, 2016

A War (Tobias Lindholm, 2015)

A war movie that appeals more to the brain and the heart than to the viscera, Tobias Lindholm's A War raises some haunting ethical questions about war and justice. Claus (Pilou Asbæk), a Danish officer, while leading a detachment of his men in an assault on the Taliban, calls in an air strike on what he believes to be the source of the gunfire that has pinned them down and left one of his soldiers critically injured. Under cover of the bombing they are able to make it to the rescue helicopter, but Claus is later charged with a war crime: There is no evidence that the gunfire came from the village where the bombing killed civilians, women and children. At the trial, held back in Denmark, Claus is acquitted after one of his men perjures himself, claiming that he had seen a muzzle flash from the village, justifying Claus's decision. But it's not a "happy ending." The film has provided many emotional justifications for Claus's action: We earlier saw Lasse (Dulfi Al-Jabouri), the critically injured man whose life Claus saves by calling in the air strike, in extreme emotional distress after witnessing the death of one of his fellow soldiers who stepped on a land mine. Claus had comforted Lasse, but nevertheless insisted that he go on this near-fatal mission. Claus also struggles with guilt because he had turned away an Afghan family seeking refuge in the military compound: They had been threatened by the Taliban after they sought medical help for their little girl, suffering from a bad burn. Reconnoitering for the assault, Claus discovers that the Taliban had made good on their threat and slaughtered the family. Claus is also struggling with pressure from home, where his wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny), is having trouble looking after their three small children: The middle child is acting out at school, and the youngest, a toddler, has had to have his stomach pumped after swallowing some pills. Writer-director Lindholm beautifully balances the combat scenes with those depicting Maria's difficulties at home. But he also stages a fine courtroom scene in which the prosecutor (Charlotte Munck) demonstrates that Claus is in fact guilty as charged: There was no evidence that the destroyed village was the source of the gunfire that pinned down Claus and his men. So, even though his acquittal comes at the expense of a witness's lie, are we right to feel good that Claus is free and able to look after his family? There are hints that Claus will never be free of the burden of guilt: After the verdict, he is seen tucking in his children at night. The feet of one of the children are sticking out from under the covers, and Claus carefully pulls the blanket over them. It's a moment that echoes the earlier scene in which Claus discovered the slaughtered Afghan family: One of the dead children's feet were protruding from the covers just like Claus's own child's. Lindholm beautifully trusts the audience to recall this detail, without having Claus flash back to it himself, but the final scene of the film, in which Claus sits alone on his patio, smoking, suggests that he will always be alone with his guilt.