by James Hansen
Samuel Maoz’s debut feature Lebanon - winner of the Golden Tiger at the 2009 Venice International Film Festival (and one of the few films I missed at NYFF 2009) - may offer little “new insight” in the war movie narrative (war is hell, everyone is unprepared, you’ll never get out the same, etc.), yet its intensely personal evocation of the unavoidable, manufactured chaos inside a clunky, constantly deteriorating war machine makes Lebanon a harrowing horror movie.
Set almost entirely within the confines of a tank named Rhino, Lebanon focuses on the first 24 hours of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The four soldiers who operate Rhino - Assi, Herzl, Shmulik, and Yigal - only see the outside through their targeted scopes. With no experience in combat, the four soldiers become increasingly wary of their situation. Shmulik, the gunner, refuses to shoot a bomb at an oncoming truck which attacks the platoon and ultimately kills one solider. Soon after, a chicken truck driven by a civilian approaches and Shmulik blows up the truck without a warning shot.
Although the POV scope becomes Lebanon’s chief gimmick – overused and oftentimes too directly staged – it makes clear that throughout the battle everyone and everything becomes a target. A sign in the tank reads, “Men are made of steel. The tank is only a piece of iron.” As the scope whirls around the landscapes throughout Lebanon, the sounds of the clanking, rotating lens are a constant reminder of the mechanical nature of the Rhino. The soldiers are reminded that they need to be unflinching steel machines, but, as the film progresses, the fallacy of this idea becomes more and more apparent.
While Lebanon has many interesting parallels with the terrific HBO miniseries Generation Kill, in its last third, Lebanon begins to feel much more like The Descent. The Rhino becomes an inescapable cave. After the Rhino is attacked and nearly destroyed, it begins oozing oil, dripping water, and slowly deteriorating as the soldier’s sanity and optimism does the same. Lebanon's formal rigor – the constant, intense close ups, the violent bouncing of the tank, the horrified glazed over eyes of the soldiers – makes the claustrophobic fear palpable. The only way to get out alive is to keep driving and continue fighting in the start of a war with no leaders and no clear objective. The soldiers rarely know where they are, much less how to get out.
Even with its brief 85 minutes running time, Lebanon formally echos the traumatic mission in such a way that unprepared audience members may flee from the theater. And Lebanon makes clear, for the soldiers (and thereby Maoz himself), there are never going to be explanations for the trauma. However, in a wonderful scene near the end of Lebanon, a seemingly simple act with a POW proves the one thing the soldiers can’t afford to lose is their humanity. This might be a typical anti-war message from a war movie, but Lebanon’s focus is experiential rather than sentimental. The sentiment arrives in bursts and always feels a little overdone, but the experience is frightening.