A tank must be a strange place to spend a war. In a tank, you are relatively safe, and certainly the guys walking alongside the tank would be happy to switch places with you. On the other hand, you are trapped inside a small space with three other soldiers, and your only window outside is a tiny peephole attached to a giant gun.
Israeli director Samuel Maoz’ “Lebanon” strives to capture that feeling of claustrophobia and confinement, stress and exhaustion. In that way “Lebanon” is a lot like the great submarine film “Das Boot,” (though to my mind a submarine is a worse place to spend a war; when the tank breaks down, there’s still a small chance you can walk away.) Unfortunately, Maoz handicaps his film by refusing to give it a plot; he doesn’t want to make a movie about war, but about the horrors of war. Perhaps twenty years ago, “Lebanon” would have felt fresh and original, if not entirely successful. But I don’t think there’s been a movie made about a historical war that wasn’t also about the horrors of that war since John Wayne retired. War is hell. Movies have been telling us that for quite a while now. Maoz doesn’t have anything to add to what’s already been said, so instead he says it over and over again, louder and with more arm-waving each time.
This movie has garnered a lot of critical praise and controversy–it was rejected for both the Cannes and Berlin film festivals before winning the Golden Lion in Venice—but I think this might be a case where the context of the film is more interesting than the film itself. For decades, Israel’s nationalistic fervor has seemed utterly unwavering; every war they fought was God’s war, and they seemed to proceed without much doubt or self-questioning. Maoz describes the First Lebanon War – the context for this movie, though the title is really your only clue—as Israel’s Vietnam; it was perhaps the first time the citizens of Israel questioned the rightness of their government’s military actions. Now, twenty years later, films are being made about that moment of uncertainty and self-doubt: “Lebanon” follows shortly after the 2008 film, “Waltz With Bashir,” another film made by a former Israeli soldier about his experiences in the First Lebanon War. I think the international critical audience may be fascinated by the prospect of former Israeli soldiers making movies about their experiences, and especially about their uncertainty, and are overlooking that the films aren’t particularly good in and of themselves (or at least this one; I loved “Waltz With Bashir” and find it to be a powerful and creative piece of filmmaking.)
“Lebanon” centers on tank gunner Shmulik (who, we learn from the press materials, but not the movie itself, is a stand-in for Maoz, who was himself a gunner in the First Lebanon War, making this a very personal project. Personal projects, like memoirs, are tricky business, and I sincerely hope Maoz got more out of making it than I did out of watching it.) Shmulik is new to an already grizzled tank crew, which includes young driver Yigal, mouthy loader Gamil, who is a few days from leave, and commander Herzel, who is unable to keep Gamil, or really anybody, in line, and whose attempts become more and more pathetic. Shmulik immediately fails to fire on an approaching vehicle full of armed enemies, and sees, through his scope, the devastating result. Then he fires on an old farmer driving a chicken truck. So it goes.
The thing about irony is that it works best as counterpoint. But as the tank rolls through an already devastated town, every image that appears in Shmulik’s scope is supposed to be powerfully ironic, and the result is that none are. We grow weary, impatient, tired of being preached at. Something needs to happen, something besides ironic juxtaposition.
It almost does. In the middle of the city, the tank veers off its given course into enemy territory, and the soldiers find themselves alone and surrounded as night falls. For a few minutes I thought “Lebanon” might get the plot it so desperately needed for its first hour; we would experience a tense and harrowing journey through darkness into safety. But unfortunately, that journey never materializes. There is no meaningful journey in “Lebanon;” there is just a platitude, pounded into oblivion. Because Samuel Maoz isn’t interested in making a movie about war, only about the horrors of war. As a result, the movie he makes just isn’t very interesting.