What bothers me about many Hollywood-style war – “A Very Long Engagement” comes to mind – is the desire by the filmmakers to somehow “pretty up” the brutality with lush cinematography and soaring, swooping camerawork.
“Lebanon,” a new war picture that opened Friday at Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton and Sunrise 11 in Sunrise, is a staggering antidote to this tendency, depicting with claustrophobic inescapability the descent into hell of four Israeli soldiers in an armored tank on the first day of the 1982 war with Lebanon.
“Lebanon” is a film that will be discussed for decades to come, both for its social/thematic importance as an antiwar treatise and its stylistic austerity: It presents one of the most potent examples of subjective immersion into its world that I’ve ever seen. Writer-director Samuel Maoz entraps viewers in the cramped confines of the tank, allowing a view of the sunlit outside world only twice in the 93-minute running time. Otherwise, images of life beyond the armor appear only through the vehicle’s crosshairs, ensuring that we see everyone and everything in the bombed-out Lebanese towns as a potential target.
Eliminating any sense of Hollywood distance or comfort, Maoz removes the “it’s just a movie” platitude. At it best – the first 40 minutes constitute the best moviemaking I’ve seen all year – “Lebanon” has the purity and verisimilitude of a documentary. Many of the images of severed bodies are so realistic they’re genuinely nauseating, while at the same time achieving unforgettable visual poetry, as when Maoz’s camera lingers on an extreme close-up of the teary eye of a dying horse. Toward the end, the film reaches its apex of filmic purity, the images shaking with the bombarded tank as it flees enemy fire. The result is something like abstract experimentalism: We can’t even see what’s going on half the time, reflecting the mass confusion and chaos of combat.
Only in its middle portion does “Lebanon” suffer a bit, when Maoz decides to grant his characters a little bit of levity and break through the tension with a humorous story from the commander’s childhood. This signals a slight shift toward commercial accessibility, which undermines the movie’s unrelenting naturalism. After that point, I became more conscious of both the musical score and the mechanics of storytelling structure. But at its best, “Lebanon” is more like a free-form docudrama, exploring a confined space with fiery audacity and plunging us full-throttle into the belly of a horrifying beast.