In “A War,” Danish army commander Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek) joins his nervous armed unit on their entry to a rural village. They plan to help residents eject the Taliban militia so many locals fear. That overly optimistic mission triggers a volatile firefight. In moments the botched assault devolves from raid to havoc.
The battle’s drastic collateral damage hits unintended targets both in Afghanistan and Denmark. Some of the aftermath is lethal, some is legal.
Writer/director Tobias Lindholm’s compelling thriller offers sharp-focus snapshots of conflict on the ground for its first hour, and in a military courtroom for the second. Pedersen, put on trial for possible war crimes, faces a prosecutor who is self-righteous in her criticism of his official actions, but not entirely wrong. Each arena’s strategies are half-blinded by the fog of war. The court’s unnerving scenes grapple with contradictory conflicts of evidence or lack of evidence. Each battle is messy and deeply painful, victimizing people who meant no harm.
If you’re looking for a film offering new insights into the war on terror, move on. This is not scholarship, but a complex, outstanding film deserving its status as a best foreign language nominee at this year’s Academy Awards. It gives us human-interest stories of how families affected by ongoing war live, not just how they die.
Asbaek gives us a documentary-style character portrait of Pedersen as a flawed everyman. He’s a sound leader for his corps, though their emotional traumas after losing a comrade are not problems he’s qualified to handle. He’s a responsible family man, though the best support he can offer his stressed wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny) and their three children in Denmark is an overnight satellite phone call. He’s gutsy in battle, but capable of mistakes that could win hearts and minds for the wrong team.
Holding that extremely stressed conflict in check may be why he follows the military rules of engagement to the nth degree. He insists that an Afghan family under threat by the Taliban must wait for his troops to arrive the next morning, sleeping in their own traditional mud house, rather than sharing his troops’ fortified compound. When they meet again, bullets flying, Pedersen is trapped in a no-win calamity where even his best choices can threaten lives, military careers and his own sense of who he is. Then he returns to Denmark to struggle against a legal system condemning one split-second decision in the heat of battle.
For obvious reasons, Pedersen is worried at every symbolic and literal mine field. Sidebar scenes in his Danish hometown show that even child-rearing can stumble from routine to nerve-racking unease. Abroad for months at a time, there can be conflict and insecurity in every corner of Pedersen’s world. When he returns to face charges that might lock him away from his seldom-seen children for years, Maria demands that he reject any moral guilt feelings and mount a solid defense. He may have killed kids in Afghanistan “but you have three living ones at home,” she blurts. Lindholm’s film wisely notes in its hushed parting shots that even when official inquiries end and rulings are announced, the jury’s still out.
Rated: R for language and some war related images. Starring: Pilou Asbæk, Tuva Novotny and Dar Salim. Director: Tobias Lindholm. Running time: 115 minutes. Theater: Flicks. In subtitled Danish and Arabic, and English.