Tobias Lindholm’s Oscar-nominated A War provides a measured account of its subject’s horrors, if such a thing is possible. Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek) is a Danish soldier stationed in Afghanistan on a mission to eradicate the Taliban and rebuild local villages. The film captures the bifurcated nature of wartime: a daily life in which death is always looming and a family life thousands of miles away. Claus’s wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny), struggles to keep her children sane, but their father’s absence is visibly wearing on them.
A War is ostensibly an anti-war film that exposes the awful calculus of military occupation through handheld shaky-camera realism, desaturated colors, and contemplative silences, but something is amiss in the high seriousness of its indictment. Asbaek and Novotny play Claus and Maria with great sensitivity and nuance, but they are continually hampered by a too-minimal script.
Just when we come to understand Claus as a fundamentally decent soldier who is genuinely trying to help Afghani people and his fellow troops, he makes a terrible mistake, and it’s the hinge upon which the film turns from a moral drama to a procedural one.
A War begins by asking whether or not war is moral, representing combat as extreme boredom punctuated by traumatic eruptions of violence. It ends by asking whether you should be responsible for war crimes you didn’t mean to commit. The second question begs you to identify, above all, with the good intentions of the soldier, which is easy to do. Claus is kind, and his wife and children are clearly suffering without him. But identification makes it easy to forget that the soldier is one of many individuals engaged in a structural geopolitical conflict that produces untold amounts of civilian death.
Here, as in Lindholm’s 2012 film The Hunt, in which a good man is falsely accused of child molestation, the ethical murk from which the drama rises is a bit overdetermined. A War was critically lauded for eschewing the genre’s usual heroics, but it’s really about exoneration, not accountability. Lindholm’s tender, caring accused are ultimately vindicated as stoic heroes, never challenged for their complicity. In other words, as ever, the men are alright.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Sneaky Blinders”