Directed by Tobias Lindholm
Opens February 12
A War, a largely admirable Danish film set during Operation Enduring Freedom, arrives on these shores amid reports of a resurgent Taliban—and as a form of Afghan-war fatigue seems to be setting in once again at home. The chart-topping podcast Serial continues to dole out the captivity narrative of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, to the disappointment of many listeners—no matter that the episodic installments add up to a solid documentary, one that’s able to get really granular about military procedure.
Writer-director Tobias Lindholm’s fog-of-war tale, currently nominated for the foreign-language Oscar, also hinges on a particular piece of acronym’d protocol: a PID, or positive identification—visual confirmation of the enemy at a location that’s required for the launching of an airstrike against it. Here Lindholm begins, though, by tracking a Danish unit on its perilous counterinsurgency rounds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these hirsute coalition forces’ loyalty to one another happens to be stronger than their commitment to their relatively nebulous—and IED-imperiled—hearts-and-minds objective. At a crucial turning point in the film, CO Claus Pederson (Pilau Asbæk, a sturdy screen presence soon to be seen on Game of Thrones) refuses to break protocol to take in a Taliban-threatened family overnight—only to find them murdered in their home in the harsh light of morning.
Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s camera stays closely trained on these soldiers’ faces and gestures, making palpable the enormous pressure these men are under, and the back-in-Denmark scenes that Lindholm regularly intersperses are shot with a similar uneasy intimacy. Claus’s wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny), struggles to keep up by herself as her three elementary-school-aged children get into the inevitable scrapes: Her oldest son, acting out in the absence of his father, throws punches at school; her youngest gets rushed to the emergency room after he swallows a handful of pills. Incompletely drawn characters were the weak point of Lindholm’s otherwise impressive previous film, A Hijacking, which also starred Asbæk as an audience surrogate in over his head. While Lindholm continues his embrace of the indefinite article with A War, the central couple here more effectively function as both universal and specific, more relatable than simply generic.
The home front finally takes center stage not long after Claus comes upon the slaughtered Afghan family, as he’s abruptly shipped back to Denmark himself to stand trial for war crimes. It’s a development that throws both him and the audience for something of a loop: Turns out an airstrike he ordered to extricate his men from a fierce firefight left nearly a dozen Afghan civilians dead. It is here that there’s a whole lot of talk about that aforementioned PID—whether or not he had it when he signed off on dropping death from above. At this point, A War skillfully widens its inquiry into the competing responsibilities faced by everyman Claus, who is mostly upstanding as both a leader of men and a family man (of course he had no inkling that that house was full of civilians) but who is nonetheless prone to lapses in judgment.
The trial’s key piece of evidence—a few minutes of bodycam footage—might lead viewers to imagine an A War–like scenario transposed to a domestic law-enforcement context. The film, then, does manage to resonate beyond the confines of the Afghan war (as its title suggests it intends to), though as an accounting of a particular crime, it unfortunately comes to feel somewhat lopsided. Lindholm portrays Claus as such a sympathetic figure, and the prosecution as so nitpickily vindictive, that in some pivotal moments the victims’ side of the equation gets lost altogether. In human terms, A War’s moral calculus might seem a bit off, but the point certainly hits home—in the age of “precision” remote-controlled weaponry and guerrilla ambushes, war crimes have become all too easy to commit.