Lebanon opens Friday in select theaters (see times below)
Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon contains one image I’ll never forget. A Lebanese chicken farmer makes the error of driving into the sights of a rattled Israeli tank crew and its accompanying paratroopers.
After he draws their fire, we see a glimpse of what’s left of the poor man. It’s the kind of shot that could be played for laughs in a geeky horror film, and indeed, there’s an unmistakeable B-movie tinge. But it’s more Sam Fuller than Sam Raimi; in this context it’s one of the more horrific images I’ve seen in a war film.
The war in question is the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and Maoz’s film represents not only the second Israeli film of the last year to tackle that subject but the second experimental film on it, coming after last year’s Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman’s far more expansive animated documentary about that war.
In Maoz’s film, we get to spend a couple of excruciating days inside a tank with four young men, none of whom is particularly suited for military service. The closest to a protagonist is Shmuel, a triggerman who is afraid to shoot. There’s also Assi, the ineffectual tank commander; Hertzel, the loader with a penchant for speaking honestly and out of turn; and Yigal, the timid driver. All four are ill equipped for their jobsthere are no Rambo wannabes hereand that’s part of the point as they move through a Lebanese town recently obliterated by their air force and proceed to blunder into danger.
The larger point of this solidly acted, efficiently low-budget film is that it represents an effort by Maoz to re-create the war from the point of view of tank operators. This means that, aside from establishing shots at the beginning and end, the entire film is set inside the tank. Our experience of the fighting outside comes through the scope of Shmuel, the triggerman. The images on the outside are terrible: We see the death of an Israeli paratrooper that results from the indecision of the tank crew; we see a devastated village and a few humiliated survivors; we see dying animals in the street.
It’s brutally hot inside the tank, and we can nearly smell the stench of the soldiers’ unbathed bodies and that of the rotting or charred flesh outside. While their tank does fearful damage to the civilians on the outside, the soldiers inside are dying in their own ways. Although the film builds up a certain amount of dramatic tension as the crew members realize that they’ve wandered into an isolated, vulnerable position, the terrible damage their weapons have done mitigates the sympathy we feel.
The 1982 invasion of Lebanon was a nasty business with a shaky casus belli, but Maoz’s autobiographical, emotive film isn’t political. Folman’s Waltz With Bashir is a far more sophisticated work that turns on Israel’s complicity in the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps committed by Lebanese Christian forces, the Phalangists. In Lebanon, too, a sadistic and untrustworthy Phalangist makes an appearance, but here he functions as a common enemy of the terrified tank crew and the Syrian captive they’re forced to keep in their tankand a convenient villain for the audience to latch onto.
War as a force that destroys young menthat is the subject of Lebanon. Like another veteran-turned-filmmaker before him, Oliver Stone, Maoz has turned his war experiences into a film of catharsis. The biggest virtue of Lebanon, though, is also its handicap: the one-way gaze of the tank sights. If war was hell for Maoz’s soldiers, what was it for everybody else?