UNLESS THE CONFLICT is centuries old—or involves either aliens or transforming robots—modern war movies rarely deal in black and white, us vs. them dynamics. The focus remains on how the individual bears the psychological and physical scars of battle. It's an appropriate response to the various shades of gray that reflect our post-9/11 mindset, but with the approach's ubiquity in the current cinematic landscape, it runs the risk of numbing us to the very real human cost on both sides of combat.
That's the struggle that Tobias Lindholm's latest, A War, runs straight into. The Danish production (and a contender for this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film) puts the weight of the war in Afghanistan squarely on the shoulders of Claus (Pilou Asbæk), a military commander trying to balance pursuing victory in the War on Terror with the needs of both his soldiers and the civilians they are trying to protect. Though never truly in equilibrium, Claus' efforts are completely upended when a split-second decision he makes in the middle of a firefight threatens to land him jail.
The drama of A War is absolutely compelling, aided in no small measure by Lindholm's tasteful direction and a restrained, heartfelt lead performance by Asbæk (best known to fans of Danish television as Kasper, the unscrupulous spin doctor in the political drama Borgen). Yet the film rarely moves beyond territory that a few dozen filmmakers have explored already: The faces and accents may have changed, but everything else surrounding the story remains the same.
Where A War finds its true gravity is when Lindholm follows Claus' family at home in Copenhagen. His wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) gamely tries to keep things as normal as possible, even as her middle child starts to act out in response to his father's absence and, during one harrowing sequence, her youngest boy swallows some pills and has to have his stomach pumped. Through Novotny's sharp performance, Maria's steely resolve feels so tenuous that every small fire she has to constantly put out threatens to consume it. That sense is trebled during the film's second-half courtroom drama, as she pushes her husband to do whatever is necessary to stay out of prison.
Like so many films about the Global War on Terrorism, the emotional heft of A War is built out of small, intensely human moments. That could be watching the Danish soldiers treat a young Afghan girl's infected arm; it could be Asbæk's tender line reading when Claus offers a satellite phone to one of his troops to call home, then promises to return to have coffee with him; it could be the gut-wrenching joy that the company exudes as they stand over the body of a terrorist they gunned down minutes before. The reverberations of those little scenes are felt within A War's plot, but they ring loudly when looking back on the entire work.
A War, in that sense, works in spite of itself—and in spite of any potential malaise moviegoers might be feeling at the sight of yet another modern war film. Yet as the battle over control of Afghanistan and Pakistan nears its 15th year, we surely need stories like these that force us to question the morality of conflict and our stake in the fight. There's little chance that these small works of art will help hurry an end to the fighting—but they do force us to face the bitter reality of how these struggles affect us all.