(2009) War Drama (Sony Classics) Yoav Donat, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Strauss, Dudu Tassa, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Ashraf Barhom, Fares Hannaya. Directed by Samuel Maoz
War is hell, and hell can be made of iron, oil and cigarette smoke. It can be the stink of perspiration brought on by being trapped in a metal box in desert heat, the acrid smell of gunfire and the horrifying smell of charred flesh. War is hell and you can bring that hell with you.
In the 1982 Israeli-Lebanon conflict, the crew of a single tank – the commander (Tiran), the gunner (Donat), the loader (Cohen) and the driver (Moshonov) are given orders to clear out a Lebanese village that the Israeli Air Force has bombed into next week. After the gunner makes a hash out of a shot, the repercussions of his failure reverberate throughout the entire film.
Mainly we are inside the tank and see only parts of the crew – a face, a leg, a torso – and other than a few scenes our world is theirs. We see through the eyes of their targeting scope, and what they see is grim indeed.
Director Maoz was 20 years old when that war broke out and he served in the war as part of a tank crew (in fact Shmuel, the name of the gunner on the tank in the movie, is Maoz’s nickname). The experiences that are shown here are not unlike the ones he experienced himself; the horrible burden of taking a human life, the terror at being in the center of a barrage of fire, the tension of being lost behind enemy lines.
There aren’t many characters beyond the ones in the tank. There’s an officer (Strauss) who may or may not know what he’s doing, an interrogator (Barhom) who will do or say whatever is necessary to make his charge talk, and a captive (Tassa) who is in mortal danger from the interrogator but could turn on all of them in the blink of an eye.
From the sense that the movie invokes many of the tensions and horrors that those who serve in war experience, it is successful. Unfortunately, the acting performances vary wildly from ice cold and hard to read to wildly over the top and not believable. Moaz had wanted the actors to experience their roles more than play them and in casting he went less for acting experience and more for wartime experience. That has its pros and cons, the con largely being that some of the performances were a little too uneven. I like what he was trying to do; I just don’t think he had the cast that pulled it off completely. However, some of the performances – particularly that of Donat, Moaz’s surrogate and in a very real sense the audience surrogate as well, and also of Tiran, the officer holding his crew together by his fingernails – were memorable.
Be warned; this is a dimly lit film because of its location. The production design of the tank is extremely impressive; the belly is filthy, with oil, water, blood, urine and whatever other fluids are nearby pooling in the bottom, discarded cigarette butts and other trash floating in the muck. We don’t always get to fully appreciate the look but we appreciate the feel of the tank because we’re as close as a movie audience can get to being in one. The tank rattles, shakes, burps, vibrates and lurches like a living drunkard. It throws the men inside it around and rattles them around until their teeth chatter like novelty items. There is nothing glamorous about being in a tank crew and Moaz conveys this with stark honesty.
The movie is described as Das Boot in a tank and that’s probably the best and most profound description you’re going to get. If you loved that movie, you’re going to enjoy this one. This one isn’t quite as good – there’s nobody in it quite as compelling as Jurgen Prochnow’s Capt. Willenbrock – but it does invoke the same feeling of being alone in a tin can in a dangerous place where death can come at any moment.
WHY RENT THIS: Claustrophobic and realistic. The tension is at a very high level throughout.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is rather weak in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Being a war movie, there is some bloody violence related to war, plenty of bad language including some sexual references and a bit of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Caine’s grandfather had a similar job to Hobbs.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While most home video has a making-of featurette on the disc, this one is a cut above the rest as this film had a particularly arduous journey from conception to screen and more than being a back-patting lovefest as most making-of shorts are, this one is actually interesting.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking that the movie broke even at best during its theatrical run.
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
TOMORROW: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll