By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 27, 2016)
Dress me up for battle
When all I want is peace
Those of us who pay the price
Come home with the least
–from “Harvest for the World”, by the Isley Brothers
Remember the Afghanistan War? What do you mean, “which one”? Y’know…the latest one; the one that “ended” in 2014 (or are we just taking a breather? I’ve long lost track). At any rate, while it’s no secret it was/is largely a “we” (as in “American”) problem, it is easy to forget that “we” weren’t the only ones who invested precious blood and treasure in that war; there were coalition forces involved as well. Take Denmark, for example. 43 dead, 211 wounded, and 15 billion kroner spent by the time the Danes pulled out in 2013.
And now, those young men and women who have “paid the price” of the Danish-Afghan conflict may have their generation’s Coming Home (or The Deer Hunter) in the guise of A War, a powerful and sobering Oscar-nominated drama from writer-director Tobias Lindholm.
Pilou Aesbaek stars as a compassionate company commander stationed in the Helmand Province. After one of his units is demoralized by the loss of a man to a Taliban sniper while on recon, the commander bolsters morale by personally leading a patrol, which becomes hopelessly pinned down during an intense firefight. Faced with a split-second decision, the commander requests air support, resulting in a “fog of war” misstep. The commander is ordered back home, facing charges of murdering civilians.
For the first two-thirds of the film Lindholm intersperses the commander’s front line travails with those of his family back home, as his wife (Yuva Novotny) struggles to keep life and soul together while maintaining as much of a sense of “normalcy” as she can muster for the sake their three kids (especially the youngest, who frequently wonders aloud when his dad’s coming home).
The home front and the war front are both played “for real” (aside from the obvious fact that it’s a Danish production, this is a refreshingly un-Hollywoodized war movie; the mundanities of everyday life hold equal import with the odd rush of adrenaline). The only nod to convention comes in a slight tonal shift in the third act; a touch of military courtroom drama recalling Breaker Morant (my review).
Some may be dismayed by the moral and ethical ambivalence of the denouement. Then again, there are few tidy endings in life…particularly in war, which (to quote Bertrand Russell) never determines who is “right”, but who is left. Is that a tired trope? Perhaps; but it’s one that bears repeating…until that very last bullet on Earth gets fired in anger.