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Lebanon

04/02/2011

It took writer-director Samuel Maoz several attempts to write the script for Lebanon. Every time he attempted it, the visceral emotional memory of his tour of duty in an Israeli tank during the first Lebanese war would render him physically incapable of continuing the project. When he eventually fought through the nausea of the process he was left with the script for Lebanon. It follows the fortunes of the four crew members of an Israeli tank (callsign Rhino) during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Spanning little more than a day and taking place almost entirely within the confines of the tank’s crew compartment it’s a tense and claustrophobic film. The four crew members of the tank are all young and inexperienced, all only twenty years old and absolutely terrified about what awaits them. Experiencing their new and terrifying world down the gunsight of their tank leaves them a demoralised, frantic mess. Their only source of experience and guidance is from the commanding officer of the paratrooper unit that is attached to their tank, a gruff veteran with little time and energy for the bumbling, raw recruits in the tank. As the horrors of war unfold before them they become more and more unhinged by the experience until, when they reach their crisis point the frailties of the human psyche are replaced by the steel of their training.

It’s a powerful and very moving film. It never turns away from the atrocities of warfare. Death and destruction lie everywhere and the fact that you experience it with the tank crew, from inside the tank, the view of the world outside permanently curtailed by the boundaries of a gunsight and the mechanical motion of the tank’s turret. The resulting separation between the carnage outside and the chaos taking hold inside is as close as you could probably get to the experience of being in that tank in 1982 without having actually been there. The constant noise inside the tank of the engine, the electric hum of the turret’s servos, the grinding of its tracks and the ferocity of incoming fire hammering on its hull add to the sense of isolation. In this respect it has a lot in common with Woflgang Petersen’s German U-boat epic Das Boot, although in Lebanon the terror of the situation is far more immediate.

Maoz eschews the slow mo grandeur popular in a lot of war films (Hurt Locker and Full Metal Jacket spring to mind) in favour of a much more documentary approach. Pulling no punches, he lets the brutality of warfare speak for itself as we see soldiers and civilians hurt and killed, families and cities destroyed. Often these glimpses are fleeting as Rhino rolls on in support of the paratroopers. Sometimes a glance is more than enough at the savagery on display. It highlights the impossibility of truly comprehending what these boys went through, of grasping the psychological after effects of the killing and maiming without having had direct experience of it. Maoz does his best to draw us a picture with this film.

The blu ray’s cover makes it’s own comparisons. “The finest war film since Saving Private Ryan”, “More brilliant than The Hurt Locker” it is proud to quote from various reviews. Oddly there is no mention of the animated semi-documentary Waltz With Bashir, another film about the Lebanese war which is concerned with a veteran’s attempts to reconstruct his missing memories of his actions during the war. It’s equally powerful but shares one thing with Lebanon more than any other and that is the notion that war (the Lebanese war in particular) is an abomination that scars the participants (willing or otherwise) psychologically as well as physically. There is nothing glamorous about warfare in Lebanon. The only thing that matters is the overriding urge to survive.

Touching, terrifying and utterly brilliant it’s a film that deserves to be seen by everyone.

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