Saturday, September 11, 2010

Review: Lebanon

Lebanon (2009, Samuel Maoz)


High concept movies are a tricky bunch. Naturally, they always begin with an interesting idea, one that grabs the interesting of the audience immediately because it makes them question how exactly the story will unfold under the unique, well defined and often peculiar circumstances the filmmakers have determined. In the case of 2009’s Lebanon, from Israeli Samuel Maoz, the viewer, much like the film’s four central characters, are stuck in an old, greasy tank during the Lebanon war in 1982. Under the guidance of Gamil, a captain who is patrolling the urban warfare areas with his troops by foot, our young and weary foursome of tank dwellers are asked to protect the foot soldiers as their platoon performs what they think is cleanup duty in a Lebanese town which has already been the victim of significant air raids.

Shumlik, Herzel, Yigal and Asi, the tank’s captain, are the protagonists who must witness the devastation and stress brought upon by modern warfare from their aging, cluttering and clanking steel made contraption. Early on in the movie the camera shows a small crest plastered on the inside wall of the assault vehicle that ironically states how men are made of steel whereas tanks are merely junk. It’s an interesting and à propos little nod to the emotional and psychological build up that is surely emphasized on in the military and before combat to get the troops’ adrenaline running. Ironically enough, it would appear that the crest which decorates the filthy wall was placed there by the previous team who manned the tank because from early on the audience is given clear indications that this foursome is not so fearsome after all. Whether it is due to their youth or perhaps some false pre-conceived notions of what warfare is all about, from the moment trouble begins to stir the team’s capabilities of functioning adequately are put into serious doubt. Botched opportunities to wipe oncoming enemies, incompatible personalities and an overall lack of composure are but some of the evil seeds which plant themselves firmly in their claustrophobic little bit of breathing space.

Lebanon had the making of a film that would grab the audience straight from the get go with some high tension scenes and not let go until the very end. The idea that the entire story would be told from the interior of a military tank held a lot of promise for several reasons. The camera, which serves as the audience’s eyes are ears, cannot leave the confinement of the vehicle, so there are several moments when the tension mounts due to the mostly hidden nature of what transpires on the outside. The only eye to the outside world the viewer and the characters are privy to is the tank driver’s cross air. The zoom factor for the cross air also served for some interesting visual cues that were at times borderline voyeuristic. The restrictive vision to the outside world made for some very intense scenes when trouble was brewing in the surrounding areas. These searches for the source of oncoming enemy fire during the battles scenes do a decent job at putting the viewer in the shoes of the tank’s crew. The sequences when the driver is just observing the remnants of the destroyed urban area were far less convincing however. The cross air (and thus the camera) will sometime rest on the face of an angry Arab who stares at the cross air as we are looking at him and at one point the driver keeps following a naked woman who has just survived the bombing of her apartment which resulted in the death of her husband and young daughter. In these moments the film was trying too hard to elicit some sort of emotional reaction from the viewer. A lot of it has to do with timing in instances such as these and I felt as though the camera would rest on the bystanders or the victims of violence for too long, almost as though it didn’t trust the audience enough had to make things as obvious and didactic as possible.

The character relations are of interest in Lebanon given how Samuel Maoz keeps them nice and tight with the tank. It’s pretty obvious that the crew is relatively young, with oldest perhaps in his early to mid thirties at most. Most of them don’t really want to be there at all, especially Shmulik, who consistently questions Asi’s authority, thus creating some strain between the two. I suppose we could designate Shmulik as the smart ass, or obnoxious one of the bunch. Whatever decision is taken, be it by Asi or Gamil who transfers his own orders via radio communication (although he does pop in from time to time to speak to the crew directly), one can be certain that Shmulik will show at least a minimal form of resistance. The only other crew member however who is given any significant characterization is the so called leader, Asi. At first he does his best to impose his authority, although with Shmulik around it often falls on deaf ears. Then again, Asi rarely, if ever provides discernable reasons for some of the decisions he opts for, which therefore invites to question his true abilities as a leader. The other two crew members feel quite superficial. An opportunity to build up some memorable characters in a memorable setting is therefore somewhat lost. They aren’t total blank slants, the movie does try to give them some simple traits, but there isn’t a whole lot to chew on. A shame.

Overall, I would argue that Lebanon’s first half is really decent despite that I felt the characters were a bit under-developed. The set design was superb with all the steam and filth infesting the tank and I enjoyed following Gamil’s platoon from the inside of this ancient vehicle. The movie started out with a certain ambition that caught my attention and was playing its cards well overall, but, much like the crew members themselves, the film loses its way somewhere during the second half. It was a bit odd because it felt as though director Y, for right or wrong, suddenly thought ‘Oh gosh, I set my entire film in a tank and we’ve mostly just been patrolling a decimated Lebanese town with a few incidents here and there. I had better start throwing more things into the mix otherwise this will get boring.’ While not completely blown away (no pun intended), I though the first half was interesting enough and I wouldn’t minded at all had Lebanon simply continued down that same trajectory. Director Y clearly felt otherwise and thought it best to include several new variables during the last 30-40 minutes of the movie which don’t necessarily make the story any better. In fact, I felt things got a bit clunky near the end. A Syrian prisoner of war is thrown into the tank, a Falangist (Christian Arab) comes in on occasion to taunt the former in Arabic about how he is going to cut off the prisoner’s balls, Asi’s mental stability seems to melt away and he begins to talk strange à la Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, and the film’s climax and final shot feel rushed, sadly. The focus of the film is lost at some point and I’m not sure director Y knew exactly how to get things back on track. The addition of the Syrian prisoner is a prime example because that character is brought into this confined space but only seems to be a factor on and off. The POW’s presence doesn’t add anything, but every once in a while the movie will takes a few minutes to have a scene that is concerned with him. That, in essence, encapsulates my sentiments on the director’s storytelling decision during the latter stages of the film: things are adding just for the sake of adding them. These things might happen during wartime, I wouldn’t contest that, certainly not with my limited knowledge of the Lebanese war of the 80s. But some things can’t just be done in a film to add authenticity, they need to serve the story.

Despite its weaker second half, I still believe Lebanon to be worth recommending. The premise might sound more promising than the end product, but that isn’t to say the product in question is unworthy. There are a number of solid scenes, some of which study the character relations of the crew members while others are more action-oriented and concentrate on the fury that rages outside. I just think the script required some more polish before all the shooting, both literal and figurative, began.

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