Lebanon tells the story of four young Israeli soldiers, barely out of their teens, who are forced together to operate a tank as the First Lebanon War begins. It is an incredibly ambitious and difficult project, and one that has allowed director Samuel Maoz to create a veritable cinematic masterpiece. Waltz With Bashir employed a vast range of techniques (animation, documentary, non-narrative interviews, etc) to deal with the emotions and psychological issues created by the same war; but Lebanon never leaves the damp, explosive confines of the tank, and uses this claustrophobic microcosm to explore the power-struggles, crippling moral torment, and emotional anguish that defined this horrific event in world history.
Herzl (the headstrong loader), Shmulik (the timid gunner), Assi (the hesitant commander), and Yigal (the scared, ‘momma’s boy’ driver) make up the tank’s crew. They are clearly from different Israeli backgrounds (at least in terms of wealth and education) and there is some resentment between Herzl and Assi over who should be in charge. We join the story as the crew is ordered to cross the border into Lebanon and block a dusty road over night. The following morning, when a car approaches and refuses to stop, they are ordered to blow up the car. Shmulik refuses to do so, and as a result some troops in their battalion are killed. A few minutes later another truck appears, and Jamil (the battalion commander) doesn’t bother with a warning but simply orders Shmulik to shoot. Shmulik overcomes his anxiety and blows the truck up… and it turns out to be an innocent chicken farmer, who is left crawling across the dusty ground with his entrails hanging out. Thus the tone is set for a truly raw and unapologetic look at the horrors of modern warfare.
The battalion moves across villages and areas of countryside that have already been decimated by Israeli air strikes, but the rubble provides ample cover for the legions of Lebanese troops still trying to protect their land. Through Shmulik’s cross-haired peephole we see small gun battles breaking out, resulting in deaths on all sides (Israeli and Lebanese troops, and innocent civilians). And when we turn back into the tank and see the effects this brutality is having on it’s beleaguered and devastated crew, we realize that a soldier is just an innocent civilian in khaki uniform.
When the tank breaks down, the crew seems relieved at the prospect of being airlifted out of the warzone; but orders from above explain that they cannot be reached because they are too deep into enemy territory. The tank crew is then left completely alone, save for one maverick gangster and a captured enemy soldier, to find their way out of this hellish world.
There may be nothing especially surprising about the underlying message of this film. This is a cathartic exercise for Maos, who was forced to fight in the Lebanese war himself, and the film is unremittingly negative about the concept of war and the effect it has on those involved. But while criticism of war may be an obvious position to take, it is still an infinitely fascinating and complex one that even Sun Tzu and Wilfred Owen were unable to solve, and Maoz has found an original and ensnaring way of investigating his own feelings about war. The relationships between these four troops – the forced machismo, the unspoken dependency, the choking back of tears through angry tirades – are so real and engaging.
But what all of this really boils down to is the setting: this film would not have been possible without the inspired decision to set it entirely inside the tank; and it is this that elevates this film into the ranks of memorable, must-see cinema. Aesthetically, the claustrophobia and stuffy, menacing dankness of it are represented perfectly… it is exactly what you wish Das Boot had looked like. In terms of narrative, the relationships between the characters are perfectly conceived, performed, and captured. The naïveté, camaraderie, loneliness, and vulnerability are constantly written across the faces of the characters; and we can never turn away or take a step back… we are never more than a few inches away from this disturbing reality.