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Lebanon (Blu-ray) | DVD Review

Peril looms from all sides and, ironically, the tank’s imperiousness is also its weakness. In this type of warfare, information can be more useful than bombs. But a tank is a poor platform for intelligence gathering so the crewmen feel like blind, sitting ducks, unable to tell friend from foe. And Maoz has carefully crafted each fearful moment to nudge his viewers ever closer to the edge of their seats…

Lebanon is an intense and immersive war drama, with an impressive provenance tracing back to such classics as Apocalypse Now and Das Boot. This winner of the Golden Lion in Venice is successful on a number of levels; in particular its spirited and detailed depiction of the murky netherworld inhabited by tank crews. Within the confines of their iron behemoths, these soldiers experience war from a loftier and more privileged perspective than infantry grunts. That privilege stems from the ability to wield devastating destructive power. But, as the film makes clear, controlling that power effectively requires emotional toughness and mental acuity so callously focused that it pushes the limits of human ability.

Set on the first day of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the film begins abruptly with the arrival of a new crew member, a fledgling gunner named Shmulik (Yoav Donat), who peers through the hatch to find his face brightly reflected in a puddle of greasy water on the tank’s floor. Young Shmulik will serve as our eyes, ears and moral compass for the duration, and as he lowers himself into the bowels of the armored contraption, it feels as though we, too, have crossed over into a sullen, ironclad purgatory. Shmulik’s crewmates are given a cursory introduction: by-the-book commander Assi (Itay Tiran), taciturn driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov) and a whiney, self-absorbed loader named Hertzel (Oshri Cohen), whose distaste for army life will provide brief moments of badly needed comic relief along the way.

Writer-Director Samuel Maoz, a veteran of the Lebanon War, is up to a clever subterfuge here, designed to keep his inexperienced tank crew, and the audience, uncomfortable and distinctly off balance. The total lack of backstory creates an immediate sense of disorientation, and the viewer feels the same tension and tacit fear faced by the men. As the tank engine fires up and the hulking machine loudly rumbles off into the Lebanese night, the scenes are rendered with such vividness our bones rattle and our nostrils fill with the acrid fumes of diesel. The eerie view from Yigal’s night vision scope presents pastoral farmland as an alien, scorched environment laced with death and destruction.

Eventually the men link up with a squad of paratroopers led by a major named Gamil (Zohar Strauss, in a fine performance); a steely eyed career officer highly trained in command psychology. He orders the crew in terse, no-nonsense barks, and then softens with an affected style of faux sensitivity that borders on passive-aggressive. The tank accompanies the troopers on a mopping up mission to a Lebanese town devastated by Israeli airstrikes. But along the way we discover that these disciplined, self assured military men are not what they appear – for the split-second life and death decisions for which they are trained are not so easy to make in urban settings where terrorists and innocent civilians freely intermingle. And, as Shmulik soon learns, valuable seconds lost by indulging one’s humanitarian instincts can have unintended and deadly consequences.

Stylistically, Maoz has cobbled together an approach that peels away the outer layers of this politically complex conflict and forces the viewer to consider only the imperatives of survival. Simultaneously, he manages to get us deep inside the heads of his tank crew, and the immediacy is sometimes almost too much to bear. We feel the shifting attitudes of life inside a tank. At times the vehicle feels like a safe and sheltering haven and at other times a claustrophobic and inescapable death trap. Yet the men choose to never venture beyond its thick iron walls, as empty ammo boxes are fashioned into makeshift urinals, and our only view of the outside world is provided by Shmulik’s telescopic cannon sights. The film features some wonderful camera operating by DP Giora Bejach, who perfectly emulates the cannon’s clunky, robotic movements. The viewer is given a clear, at times God-like, view of the details of violent carnage but, like grunts in combat, we never get a full and complete look at the Big Picture.

If Maoz has a weakness here, it’s a tendency to hammer his metaphors with all the subtlety of one of his beloved M-1 Tanks. The sight of an elderly chicken farmer ripped to shreds and yelling “Peace, Peace!!” should certainly get the point across to even the most distracted viewer. When the paratroopers take refuge in a bombed out travel agency, Shmulik trains his scope onto a slow pan of tattered posters of Paris, London and finally New York; its Twin Towers prominent in the foreground.

Peril looms from all sides and, ironically, the tank’s imperiousness is also its weakness. In this type of warfare, information can be more useful than bombs. But a tank is a poor platform for intelligence gathering so the crewmen feel like blind, sitting ducks, unable to tell friend from foe. And Maoz has carefully crafted each fearful moment to nudge his viewers ever closer to the edge of their seats…

Its coarse atmospheric textures make Lebanon a natural for Hi-Def release, and the blu-ray we screened looked nothing short of wonderful. Glistening fluids, both human and mechanical, play a huge role in the visual design of the film – in fact they almost qualify as scenery – and here we can see, feel and very nearly smell, the detritus of war. Lebanon features a complex hand-crafted track skillfully assembled by sound designer Alex Claude, and the 5.1 mix delivers every grating creak and clang of the battered tank with the force of a crescent wrench to the head. The battle scenes kept our subwoofer happily busy rendering explosions with flinch-inducing force. A helicopter evacuation scene sounded so disturbingly real we were tempted to look out the window to see if a Medi-Vac unit had been mistakenly dispatched to our house.

For a blu-ray, the disc contains a paucity of bonus material. A brief primer on the events leading up to Israel’s Lebanese operation would have been appropriate and quite helpful, but is sadly missing from this edition. Equally disappointing is the lack of commentary tracks.

Notes on a War Film
This 24 minute documentary, shot mainly with consumer video equipment, offers a few glimpses into the nut-and-bolts of the production. We learn a little about the director’s background as a tank crewman in 1982, and the painstaking efforts of the film crew to keep the cast safe during the filming of the harrowing, and quite dangerous, battle scenes. Overall, this is one of the few “Making of” features that actually leaves one wanting to know more about the director’s body of work, and the particulars of the production.

The disc also contains the film’s theatrical trailer, as well as previews of four upcoming disc releases.

While Lebanon may not make it into the War Film Hall of Fame, this slice-of-life aboard Israeli amour is a fascinating and terrifying cinematic experience. Like a tank in a besieged city, the film achieves its objectives not through graceful elegance, but due to its irresistible power and unstoppable momentum. As a testament, this reviewer had refrained from the foul habit of nail-biting for over 6 years. But midway through the first reel of Lebanon, that virtuous record went out the window.

Movie rating – 4

Disc Rating – 3.5

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David Anderson is a 25 year veteran of the film and television industry, and has produced and directed over 2000 TV commercials, documentaries and educational videos. He has filmed extensively throughout the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean for such clients as McDonalds, General Motors and DuPont. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Reygadas (Silent Light), Weerasathakul (Syndromes and a Century), Dardennes (Rosetta), Haneke (Caché), Ceylon (Climates), Andersson (You the Living), Denis (35 Shots of Rum), Malick (The Tree of Life), Leigh (Another Year), Cantet (The Class)

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