IT'S 1982, and Israel is at war with Lebanon. Four young Israeli men are stationed inside a tank as they navigate enemy territory. The tank is dark, cramped, and sweaty. There's an inch of standing liquid on the floor of the cabin. It's so black it could be oil. The only window to the outside world is the periscope for the tank's gun—which superimposes crosshairs onto everything, turning every person, every tree, and every chunk of rubble into a target.
This is the entirety of Samuel Maoz's Lebanon, an autobiographical picture of the writer/director's time in the Israeli army. Maoz puts us inside the tank for the duration of the film, raising the stakes on Das Boot by making the quarters even smaller and the perspective even more claustrophobic. It's a hard movie to sit through. It's also an incredibly powerful one.
The tank's periscope view of the outside world provides most of Lebanon's visuals, and Maoz handles it with harrowing technique: The whirr, as the gun moves side to side, or the bell-like ding as the view zooms in and out, reminds us that we're looking through a very inhuman eye. After a few scrapes, the periscope view develops a hairline fracture running down it, distorting everything outside. By the end of the movie, the periscope is nearly blinded altogether by smoke, dust, and splintered glass.
The four soldiers stationed inside the tank are children, essentially: They're tired and foolish, constantly bickering with one another. All four are basically scared shitless for the entire duration of the movie. They aren't heroes, and the movie doesn't pretend for a second that they are. When was the last time you saw that kind of honesty in an American war picture?
I think we're supposed to identify closest with the character that embodies Maoz—the gunner, Shmuel (Yoav Donat)—but I kept getting the four soldiers mixed up. There was the one who was ineffectively in charge, and the lazy one who kept challenging his authority, but after that I couldn't keep track. It doesn't matter. Lebanon is not a character study; nor is it a moralistic or a political picture. It doesn't say that Israel is right and Lebanon is wrong. It is simply the account of a very bad, very violent situation, and it puts us directly in the middle of it. It's unbelievably intense, bleak, and difficult. It's unforgettable. It's absolutely worthwhile.