Damp And Claustrophobic, In 'Israel's Vietnam'

Tank Among Sunflowers

hide captionField piece: Coming on the heels of the acclaimed animated film Waltz With Bashir, the drama Lebanon offers a different — and somewhat more conventional — take on Israel's controversial 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Sony Pictures Classics

Lebanon

  • Director: Samuel Maoz
  • Genre: War Drama
  • Running Time: 92 minutes
Rated R for disturbing bloody violence, language including sexual references, and some nudity.

With: Oshri Cohen, Itay Tiran, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Strauss

In Hebrew with English subtitles

The 1982 invasion of Lebanon has been termed "Israel's Vietnam," and, like Vietnam before it, has inspired a flurry of belated cinematic post-mortems. The Israeli films aren't on the scale of Platoon or Apocalypse Now, of course; such dramas as Lebanon are low-budget miniatures that shrewdly suggest a larger canvas.

Based on writer-director Samuel Maoz's 1982 experiences as a 20-year-old tank gunner, the movie is set on the first day of the attack, and almost entirely inside a tank occupied by commander Assi (Itay Tiran), gunner Shmulik (Yoav Donat), loader Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) and driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov).

The tank crew members are visited intermittently by their seasoned commanding officer, Jamil, and end up transporting a POW. But most of what they — and we — see of the war is through the tank's sights.

The effect is even more claustrophobic than in Beaufort, the 2008 Lebanon-war movie in which the constricted interior of an Israeli stronghold came to suggest a spacecraft. The battle film Lebanon most closely recalls is Das Boot, especially since being inside the tank — awash in water and leaking oil — appears akin to being underwater.

The tank is sent to "clean up" a town that was already bombed by the Israeli Air Force, and finds a lot more resistance than expected. Unprepared, unnerved and missing their mothers, the soldiers are more observers than participants. The first thing to go wrong, which happens almost immediately, comes when Shmulik can't bring himself to follow orders and blow up an approaching BMW. His inaction leads to the death of an Israeli — "an angel," in Jamil's walkie-talkie parlance.

Evoking Moaz's own experience, the movie has no grand design. It's a series of incidents, alternately bewildering, horrifying or darkly ironic. The boys inside the tank don't offer a critique of the war, and neither does the film.

Politics do enter the story, and the tank, in the forms of a cocky, vengeful Lebanese Phalangist (Christian militia member) and that terrified Syrian prisoner. But the crew's conversations with them, in fractured English and even more fractured Arabic, reveal emotion rather than ideology.

Tank Manhole i i

hide captionClose Quarters: Writer-director Samuel Maoz documents the Israeli incursion from the viewpoint of one tank and its four crew members. Critic Mark Jenkins says the claustrophobic setting evokes classic war movies such as Das Boot.

Sony Pictures Classics
Tank Manhole

Close Quarters: Writer-director Samuel Maoz documents the Israeli incursion from the viewpoint of one tank and its four crew members. Critic Mark Jenkins says the claustrophobic setting evokes classic war movies such as Das Boot.

Sony Pictures Classics

There is an implied rebuke to Israeli policy when Jamil instructs the tank crew that international law bans the use of phosphorous bombs, so the soldiers must never use the word "phosphorous." But such chilling sequences as the one where a woman and her young daughter are held hostage can't be reduced to simple moral equations. They're too messy, and too hopeless.

Inside the tank, the young men tell a few stories from childhood, yet none ventures as deep into traumatic memory as the characters in Waltz with Bashir, the 2008 movie that used animation to depict nightmares engendered by the Lebanon war. But where that film was marinated in post-combat psychological fallout, Lebanon attempts to convey the experience of battle as it occurs.

Moaz succeeds in that aim: Lebanon is visceral and immediate. Yet its perspective does finally seem too limited. However personal the subject matter, the circumscribed viewpoint makes the movie feel too much like a film-school project.

That limitation sometimes threatens to becalm the story, but the movie ends powerfully, with a sudden pileup of fright, death and a disconcerting glimpse of beauty. If Lebanon's goal is to keep the viewer on edge and off balance, its final minutes are exemplary.

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