It’s not terribly complicated to comprehend why filmmakers are attracted to the subject of war. No other setting contains and evokes the same kind extreme stakes, high emotions, powerful relationships, dangerous action, and dubious morality of the battlefield, and an effort to recreate those conditions is a true challenge. It is in this respect that writer/director Tobias Lindholm’s A War is an impressive success.
Based on an original screenplay by Lindholm, the film centers on Company commander Claus M. Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk), a Danish military officer leading his troops against the Taliban forces in Afghanistan. A husband and father of three – whose wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny) and children miss him dearly - Claus is a compassionate man, constantly looking out for not just the physical and emotional well-being of his men, but also local civilians. Unfortunately, it’s this level of care that leads him to serious hot water.
Claus and his men find themselves involved with an Afghani family after providing some emergency medical assistance, and while this would ordinarily be fine, it becomes immensely more complicated when the family is threatened by Taliban soldiers. Claus makes the decision to protect them – albeit without straining resources – but the consequences of the resulting sequence of events turn out to be incredible dire, as the protagonist finds himself charged with war crimes.
As you’d expect from the film’s direct title, A War never shies away from the true horror of its central subject matter, and succeeds in feeling visceral and emotionally powerful. Without ever feeling exploitative, there is a full and graphic examination of the horrors of global conflict, and the movie wastes no time telling you what it is – an early sequence featuring a soldier triggering an improvised explosive device and having his legs separated from the rest of his body. In establishing the terror and incredible pressure of the setting, Lindholm puts you firmly in Claus Pedersen’s perspective, which in turn adds a new layer to what is ultimately the central conflict of the movie when the protagonist is brought up on charges.
Scenes of death and destruction in the desert would perhaps be enough for many films, but A War is as much about Claus’ life as a soldier as it is about the life waiting for him back home. The genuine depth of the story and emotional connection to the choices the characters make are rounded out in watching Maria work hard to take care of her three young boys while her husband is fighting terrorism. It richly adds to the stakes, and the relationship remains just as significant to the narrative even after Claus returns from battle.
Effective and well-made as it is, certainly succeeding at what it sets out to do, the film is also mostly straight-forward in its approach, and doesn’t spend much time treading much new ground in the war movie genre. It certainly is interesting to see the story from the Danish perspective – given how many American features have come out about the War in Afghanistan – but at the same time it also demonstrates the unfortunate universal nature of modern warfare, in that the experiences and harsh realities are very much the same.
Tobias Lindholm’s A War is arriving in domestic theaters having already been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, and it’s not hard to see why it has earned such esteemed attention. Emotional without getting exhausting, brutal without being gratuitous, and delivering serious questions about morality and duty in time of war, it’s an impressive piece of work, and an impressive showing from an emerging Danish filmmaker.