Dir. Samuel Maoz
(2010, R, 93 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

Lebanon considers familiar themes about war – its split-second life-or-death decisions, its deleterious effects on the men who fight – but makes them startlingly urgent through the outstanding screenplay and direction of Samuel Maoz, who was inspired by his own service in the Israeli army during the Lebanon War of 1982. The action takes place entirely within the confines of a tank where four soldiers undergo the stress of combat, and in its dramatization of claustrophobic dread it takes Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours to school.

It’s not an overtly political film about the reasoning for the war, and there are few details about its waging. The soldiers are ordered to use weaponry deemed illegal by international law, and there are moments of animosity between a Phalangist (a sect of Christian Arabs) and a Syrian POW, but otherwise the film is isolated from strategies, governments, and ideologies, and that’s what makes it so powerful. It’s set within closed quarters so tight that the only relevant concern is what is happening directly in front of you and behind you and how to survive from one moment to the next.

Zohar Strauss, as Jamil

The four soldiers are unit commander Assi (Itay Tiran), driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov), artillery loader Herzel (Oshri Cohen), and gunner Shmulik (Yoav Donat). They are not a disciplined team: Assi’s authority is challenged early and often, suggesting not seasoned soldiers but young men forced away their homes by compulsory military service. They’re periodically visited by their direct superior, Jamil (Zohar Strauss), who barks orders and warns them to fall in line, perhaps to conceal that he doesn’t understand what’s happening either. At one point he insists to his own commanding officer that he is not lost – it must be the rest of the country that’s in the wrong place.

The action outside the tank is shown exclusively through Shmulik’s gun sight, and this is perhaps Maoz’s most inspired creative choice, creating a unique perspective of war between its dispassionate crosshairs. These images, with their narrowed field of vision and the whirring movements of the mechanical eye, create an eerie distance between the soldiers and their environment and bring the war zone into intense focus. Maoz frequently cuts between the gun sight and Shmulik’s eye in intense close-up, as when a civilian woman stares through the scope with a look of simultaneous pleading and accusation. This image comes perilously close to heavy-handedness – the judgmental gaze of the filmmaker commenting on the horrors of war – but Maoz identifies with Shmulik, not the woman, and the self-shame in the young soldier’s eye is intensely personal. The director is not commenting on war but on himself.

In such confines, Maoz and his actors are to be commended for creating clear and distinct characters and making them resonate as individuals. With cinematographer Giora Bejach, he makes the cramped interior visually interesting, ominous. Every once in a while the hatch above them opens, flooding them with rare sunlight, and in one scene they listen longingly to the sound of planes passing overhead. Would that they could be anywhere but here.