Film Review: Lebanon

A frightened Israeli tank crew blunders their way through the start of the first Lebanon War in one of the most terrifyingly sickening portraits of war ever filmed.

It will be the temptation of nearly everyone who sees or even hears of Samuel Maoz's Lebanon to make some reference to Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot. They shouldn't, because Maoz's film—while even more spatially confined and relentlessly assaultive than Petersen's—is in a place by itself. If a comparison must be made, then a more apt one would be to Picasso's Guernica, whose sense of sickened powerlessness Maoz evokes on more than one occasion.

In early June 1982, the four members of an Israeli tank crew power up their vehicle for a mission, and the audience is going along with them. Save for the film's painterly opening shot of a field of sunflowers wilting under a blazing blue sky, writer-director Maoz never allows his camera to leave the tank's dark and grimy interior. We see what they see, and what they see isn't reassuring. Their first assignment, guarding a road with a squad of paratroopers, turns hellish fast when Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the gunner and likely stand-in for Maoz (who also served in a tank crew during the war), first freezes up and then fires too quickly. Each action brings a different tragic consequence that leaves Shmulik a basket case whom his ineffective commander, Assi (Itay Tiran), is unable to control.

After that, the tank crew must follow the paratroopers into a town that's supposedly been cleared by the air force. A "cakewalk" mission gets tangled up quickly in bloody incident, with Syrian soldiers and Lebanese gunmen lying in ambush and the few civilians not killed by the bombing being used as cover. The unit's orders appear ill-considered at best, their only assistance coming from a pair of brutish Phalangist (Christian militiamen allied with Israel) gunmen who seem less intent on helping them than on terrifying a bloodied Syrian prisoner handcuffed inside the tank.

The paratroopers' already burnt-out squad leader, Jamil (Zohar Strauss), is just about their only connection to the outside world, dropping in through the hatch to deliver new orders and attempt to bang some sense into the clearly unprepared crew. (The panicky foot soldiers seem barely more trained, blundering through the town as though they'd never been to basic training.) Almost every other entry into the tank's sickly hold makes the crew feel more powerless, particularly the helicopter that winches the corpse of an Israeli soldier (an "angel" in radio code) they were transporting up into the night sky.

As frightening as the tank must be for enemy soldiers to behold, it's hardly any more reassuring inside. The engine roars and belches, the men stuck inside a smoke-filled, rattling metal can that looks thick with a foul stench that can't be helped by the men's use of empty ammunition cans as urinals. They can only see out through a single scope with a superimposed crosshairs, a device frightening both for how it limits their vision but also how it muffles the reality of all that's happening outside. Maoz's camera imitates Shmulik's frightened eye as it darts from one grotesque image to the next, straining to see what it can't see.

While the burnt-metal sensibility that Maoz has carved out here is nearly unimpeachable, there are script elements that could have used polishing. The grappling for control between Assi and the tank's resident smartass Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) is spelled out in the broadest manner possible. Also, a soliloquy delivered by Shmulik is almost too perfectly slotted in; glazed-over and nearly speechless with horror through most of the film, his sudden launch into verbosity isn't convincingly handled.

By refusing to engage with the reality of the war beyond the scope of the tank, however, Maoz keeps his vision brutally focused in a way that war films rarely manage. Like Waltz with Bashir, Maoz's film sees the war as little more than waste, crime and folly; but unlike that film, the severe, chastening Lebanon doesn't provide even the small relief of a mystery solved.

This review was revised on July 29, 2010. The last name of director Samual Maoz had been misspelled.