Despite it’s seemingly ambiguous or at very best broadly reaching title, Danish director Tobias Lindholm’s latest and arguably greatest picture, A War does not only the exact opposite, but completes a task that has been difficult for films looking at the never-ending wars currently raging in the Middle East. While the vast majority of films looking at these conflicts and the men and women who wage and lead these efforts try and build upon either the heroism of those in conflict or the villainy of those who began it, Lindholm’s film has the title of a pretentious picture that would seem to strip any specificity away in hopes of making a grand statement about war. However, A War is not only a distinct and singular narrative but one that gives us a quietly told insight into a specific aspect of war and the inability for modern law to govern it.
Following up his critically lauded A Hijacking, Lindholm’s latest reteams the filmmaker with actor Pilou Asbaek, who takes on the role of Company commander Claus M. Pedersen, a married father of three who is, for all intents and purposes, an upstanding leader. Even going as far as to take the lead on routine patrols daily with his men, Pedersen is a man of high character with a sturdy moral compass. However, when he and his men are caught in a firefight, he makes a singular decision that sends his life in a direction one could never have seen coming. Co-starring Tuva Novotny as Maria, Pedersen’s wife, the film is ostensibly split into two distinct segments, which plays to this type of picture’s advantage.
More or less structured definitively within the classical three act style, this roughly two hour picture begins with a lengthy introduction to Pedersen and his life with his men, as well as brief glimpses of Maria and her life back home with her three growing children. This is the film at its most quiet, and for much of its runtime it isn’t quite clear as to where we are heading. While it is beautifully composed and the photography in particular is utterly awe-inspiring (cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck previously shot A Hijacking as well as a handful of episodes of the criminally underrated Borgen), the pace of the film as it begins is slow, with the drama being played in such a low register that it is just barely palpable. The opening sequence itself is quite harrowing, and the film is thankfully leaning on the towering performance from Asbaek, who is an absolute star here.
Then comes the “rising action.” Pedersen’s men are under attack, and he must make a split second decision that ultimately leads him into a position that we could have never imagined seeing someone so clear headed and assured in his decisions in. It would be criminal to spoil this, as it’s not only a genuinely powerful change of pace and aesthetic but a moment like this is hard to come by in modern cinema. Very much akin to a film like Force Majeure or even The Loneliest Planet this is not only a picture about the impact of a specific decision, but as a war picture, it becomes one of the most beautifully thought provoking meditations on the “fog of war,” and how in a war where modern soldiers try to bring their sense of right and wrong and black and white, all there is anymore is various shades of grey. A War is a tautly told picture that is a far cry from the genuinely thrilling A Hijacking but carries with it the same sense of assurance in direction. Lindholm’s camera is constant and firm, engrossing the viewer in a world painted with such rare nuance that this plays much more like a truly specific slice of life drama for much of its run time, instead of a modern war picture. There’s a poetry to each frame, a startlingly assured sense of geography, and as the film progresses, the quiet nature of the narrative is slowly evolved into something bewilderingly tense. Focusing primarily on Asbaek’s face, Lindholm’s use of space and focus elevates the picture, with each shot feeling properly composed and allowing for the viewer to ultimately, come the picture’s final sequence, make their own judgment about what has just played out in front of them. It’s a mature, adult motion picture dealing with mature and adult ideas, never for a second playing the typical notes that the majority of modern war pictures have plucked.
Driven by Asbaek’s star-making run, this Oscar-nominated drama is arguably the greatest film to this date dealing with the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. A mesmerizing piece of structuralism, the film is able to convey more emotions and ideas with the simple static shot of Asbaek’s face, becoming the greatest instrument played here. Firmly rooted in a type of realistic filmmaking that is rarely seen even in a genre of film that strives for “realism,” A War mines this conflict for some of the most thrilling and provocative commentary on war and its relation to modern society in ages.