May 23rd 2010
Film Review by Colin Dibben
Four sweaty guys in a slimy, smoke-filled, sulphur-encrusted metal box, with very little idea where they are ... the speed with which each man goes delirious being his major character trait. Sounds like Hell, right?
The cramped metal box in question is actually an Israeli Defence Force tank attached to a 12-man commando unit. And Samuel Maoz’s film is set in Beirut, southern Lebanon, June 1982, when the IDF invaded and pushed the PLO all the way to the sea.
This is the same war that informed Waltz with Bashir. In both cases, the directors were IDF combatants - and their films are reflections on their experiences back then, heavy with hyperbolic symbolism and self-serving justifications that tend to assert themselves over grittier proceedings.
That said, Lebanon is a far grittier experience than Bashir. The film really is about four blokes going pretty mental inside a tank. And the viewer starts to feel it too. The sense of restricted vision and movement unnerves: for most of the film, the outside world is only seen through the tunnel vision of the gunner’s scope.
New gunner Shmulik joins the boys just before the unit leaves a shady grove to enter the city. He finds out almost immediately that it’s difficult to pull the trigger, especially on screaming naked women and old guys playing chess. Meanwhile, young driver Yigal worries about his folks back home and Herzel and unstable chief Assna bitch at each other. The bickering is boring and the relationships seem corny – but perhaps the former at least is to be expected. After all, as characters they are young and scared and slightly incompetent.
Episodes of life seen from inside are broken up by staticky radio messages and the descent of a series of people - the unit’s professional leader, Gamil, a dead Israeli soldier, a Syrian prisoner and a psycho Phalangist - through the tank turret hatch. In these scenes, a striking white light falls on the upraised faces of the tank crew. But the news from outside is uniformly bad – the unit has strayed deep into a Syrian-run suburb, they are faced with an enemy using human shields, they have no clue where they are.
Like Bashir, Lebanon tells the story of a small group of people to get purchase on a controversial piece of history. But perhaps that’s no purchase at all. A bad film using this existential approach will simply reduce a complex of issues to a series of narrative clichés from a chosen film genre. It’s embedded cinema at its CNN-shlock worst.
Lebanon isn’t quite there, but has tendencies. For example, in key scenes the gunscope/camera goes eye to eye with “collateral damage” in the form of a grieving mother, a scared boy, an impassive older man. At these moments, I felt I was being manipulated to emote “A human moment - how intense and meaningful!” – something I didn’t feel – when the film as a whole failed to pose the more important question “What was the IDF doing here in the first place?”
Ultimately, what made Lebanon interesting for me was that every gritty incident on screen seemed to also operate at a symbolic level – so that eventually I wondered whether we weren’t living amongst the dead for most of the film. Perhaps Lebanon really is set in Hell ... the turret hatch emissaries are bringing Ubik-style premonitions of death ... and any moment now the radio will squawk “I am alive and you are dead”.