A brilliantly original and terrifying look at war seen from the
confines of a tank as it embarks on the 1982 conflict in Lebanon.
Lebanon is a war film like no other. It forgoes the high octane of a Saving Private Ryan (1998), ignores the visual flair of The Hurt Locker (2009)
and instead plumps for sheer reality in a way that you would never wish
to experience. That the idea is so simple and on paper relatively
budget friendly, making it all the more dazzling. There is nothing
glamorous about this conflict, no slow-motion sniper shots, no moments
of fist-pumping bravery. These soldiers are real, scared and more than anything terrifyingly aware of the burden of expectation on their young shoulders.
It is 1982 and the Israeli army move into Lebanon. Among the first
wave is a tank, known simply as ‘Rhino’, which must act as a spearhead
for a troop advance into a village. Within the tank four young men,
Shmuel (Donat) the gunner, Assi (Tiran) the commanding officer, Herzl (Cohen) the loader and Yigal (Moshonov) the driver, must find confidence in each other to survive while the war around them wages to horrific levels.
Writer Director Samuel Maoz was a tank gunner in the war in Lebanon. He
confesses that he died over there and what returned was simply a shell
of a man. Clearly his traumatic experiences led to this film. Every
minute detail of the events that unfold feels horrifically real. Every
finite aspect of life within the tank is perfectly realised.
There are only two shots outside of the tank and they bookend the
film. The only way we ever see the external events is through the gunner
scope. The effect this has is a disjointed reflection of the war. There
is almost a sense of unreal through the silent lens into the outside
world. Inside however, Maoz pushes the camera in close, uncomfortably
so, to his actors creating an ever-increasing sense of claustrophobia. The walls drip with oil, the heat seeps through clothing and the smell of urine fills the nostrils.
Rarely is a film as atmospheric as this. At rare intervals the tank’s
hatch is opened and in doing so acts as a respite for the audience; such
is the need to gasp for air.
While it creates the feeling of being at war Lebanon also finds time to examine the men within the beast. These are not war ‘heroes’ but young men who do not understand what their end goal is other than to survive.
Schmuel is clearly the embodiment of director Maoz and as a result has
access to the realities of the war outside. As he is repeatedly expected
to kill people, with the simple yet devastating shot of his cannon, we
see just how hard it can be when the victims of your trigger finger are
seen in close-up through the telescopic scope. One harrowing moment sees
Schmuel destroy a building only to witness a woman, burnt and
stumbling, demanding to know where her daughter is. That a few seconds
earlier we saw a young girl in the building makes it all the more gut
The performances across the board are of huge significance as to the
film’s success. As Schmuel, Donat is a ball of nerves, his eyes dart
conveying the desperation of not having the full picture of the war in
front of him. Every order to shoot is accompanied by a clear question of
conscience that is done through little to no dialogue. Instead it is
conveyed by his energy which is always on edge. Moshonov is the reserved
driver who tries to focus his concern on the worry his mother must be
facing. He is frequently the voice of reason and yet he projects the
most innocence of the crew. As the tank commander Cohen brings an
ambiguous tone of either calm or silent panic. While he might want to be
in charge he gives the character enough insecurity so as the others
question his leadership. However, the stand out performance goes to Tiran as the cocky loader Assi.
Not afraid to voice his displeasure Tiran is an actor who you
immediately route for. He has that ability to become the character in a
charming way causing you to enjoy his moments endlessly.
Lebanon is a lesson in the art of suspense. The tank crew’s emotions
leap off the screen infecting the audience and creating the sense of
being with them in every moment. An unorthodox war film, in every breathtaking sense, this will deservedly go down as a must see in the genre.