Danish film “A War”, which was recently nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, observes difficult moral matters of action and consequence from inside and outside the war. While we come to understand an impossible circumstance its hero and others happen to face on their battlefield, we also see the grave unforeseen consequence he must deal with in one way or another during the aftermath. Both visceral and sensitive in its realistic approach to war and its human ramifications, the movie does not resort to giving easy answers to its moral dilemma as calmly maintaining its non-judgmental viewpoint, and the result is another thoughtful war drama with raw emotional power.
The first half of the film revolves around a Danish military company stationed near a rural village in Helmand, Afghanistan, and the opening scene shows a group of soldiers during their routine patrol supervised by their company commander Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) at the base. As a decent, diligent, and compassionate leader, Pedersen genuinely cares about his men’s safety in the field, and he feels more urged to protect his soldiers especially after a sudden tragic incident which seriously affects their morale. When one of his men, still devastated by that incident, confides to Pedersen his emotional hardships, Pedersen handles him with empathy and common sense, and this touching scene is one of small authentic human moments to distinguish the film from usual war movies.
While we continue to observe the daily routines of Pedersen and other soldiers in the base including his fellow officer and best friend Najib Bisma (Dar Salim), we also look into the daily struggles of Pedersen’s family in Denmark. He and his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) have three children, and it is sometime difficult for Maria to take care of their children alone. We learn that one of the kids has a behavioral problem in his school, and he even exasperates his own mother. At one point, she hurriedly takes the youngest one to hospital due to one of common accidents associated with kids, and that moment will come close to you if you have ever gone to hospital because of your kid.
Feeling more and more of her husband’s absence in their household, Maria gets some comfort from her occasional satellite phone conversations with her husband. They casually talk with each other as confirming their enduring relationship to each other, and their children are happy to talk with their father, but Maria worries about her dear husband because, after all, anything can happen in war.
After Pedersen decides to command his soldiers directly in the field, we get a number of sequences packed with tension and verisimilitude, and the director/writer Tobias Lindholm, who previously impressed us with “A Hijacking” (2012), efficiently handles these sequences as generating the constant sense of danger around the screen. When a villager approaches to Pedersen and his men for urgent help, they have good reasons to be watchful of this seemingly harmless guy, and we sense their alert mood as the cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck’s handheld digital camera steadily hangs around them like another member of the unit. In one quiet but intense moment, Pedersen’s sniper soldier and his partner must be both careful and decisive as watching their possible target from the distance, and the mood becomes more suspenseful as the target in question is coming into their range with the considerable potential of collateral damage.
When Pedersen and his soldiers are suddenly ambushed by Taliban soldiers during their another patrol around the village on one day, the situation quickly gets worse as they are relentlessly attacked by their enemies who must be hiding somewhere inside the village. Vividly presenting the hellish chaos among lots of bullets and explosions, the movie holds us tightly to this gritty combat sequence, which eventually culminates to Pedersen’s impromptu decision. He is technically wrong in his decision, but it is also undeniable that the decision is a desperate measure for him and other soldiers during that chaotic moment.
Two parallel storylines in the film converge during its second half as Pedersen is brought back to his country because of the death of several innocent civilians which was resulted from that decision of his. Feeling guilty about this unintentional tragedy and anxious about his upcoming trial, Pedersen considers accepting the cost of his devastating mistake, but Maria cannot imagine her husband taken away from her and their children again, and that only adds more agony and conflict to his situation.
The courtroom scenes during the second half of the film are compelling and gripping under its impeccably sobering atmosphere, and the main performers are superb in their respective roles. Pilou Asbæk, who was wonderful as one of the ship crew members held as hostages by Somalian pirates in “A Hijacking”, is fabulous as quietly conveying Pedersen’s inner conflicts behind his calm façade, and Tuva Novotny holds her own place beside Asbæk. As Pedersen’s no-nonsense lawyer, Søren Malling, who was another crucial part of “A Hijacking” as a shipping company CEO patiently negotiating with Somalian pirates, makes a nice contrast to Charlotte Munck’s prosecutor character, and three young performers Cecilie Elise Søndergaard, Adam Chessa, and Andreas Buch Borgwardt deserve to be mentioned for their natural interactions with Novotny and Asbæk. While several military characters in the film are played by Dar Salim and a few professional actors, many other soldiers in the film are played by real Danish soldiers who really have been to Afghanistan, and they do bring another realistic touch to the film along with the genuine sense of comradeship among them on the screen.
While I was watching “A War”, it was automatically compared with several recent war films and documentaries in my mind. “Brothers” (2004), which was directed by Lindholm’s fellow Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, already attempted the juxtaposition of war drama and family drama in a similar background, and I could not help but think about that unforgettable Danish documentary film “Armadillo” (2010) as observing the Afghanistan scenes in the movie. Although “A War” may not bring anything new into its field, the movie is a superlative work fueled by powerful moments, and Lindholm scores big again as solidifying his rising status as another interesting filmmaker from Denmark.