Picking up the Golden Lion Award at last year’s Venice Film Festival, Samuel Moaz’s Lebanon is the best of a recent wave of Israeli war movies (Beaufort and Waltz With Bashir) that have grown out of Israel’s involvement in Lebanon, in particular their 1982 invasion, named, without a glimmer of irony, ‘Operation Peace in Galilee’.
Set on the first day of the invasion and almost entirely within the cramped confines of a tank, Lebanon follows a young, inexperienced tank crew on their first mission; to escort a squad of Israeli paratroopers through the hostile ruins of a town that’s just been bombed back to the Stone Age by an Israeli airstrike. However, the operation doesn’t go according to plan and the crew, indecisive commander Asi (Itay Tiran), rebellious loader Hertzel (Oshri Cohen), panicky driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov) and rookie gunner Shmulik (Yoav Donat), soon find themselves cut off and alone, marooned behind enemy lines in a damaged tank with little chance of escape as the unseen enemy surrounds them.
Like 2008’s Waltz With Bashir, Lebanon is directly based on the experiences of its director, Samuel Moaz. Unlike Bashir’s Ari Folman, who conveniently forgot the part he played in the genocidal massacre of 3000 Arab civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps but decided to make a nice awards-friendly cartoon about it anyway, Moaz (who, like Shmulik, was a gunner in a tank) has distilled his memories into an intensely, visceral, claustrophobic hour and a half of boldly experiential cinema, placing the audience directly in the cramped, noisy, juddering tank with its young rookie crew, the outside world viewed only through Shmulik’s gunsight, the tank’s armour plating muffling exterior sound while amplifying each tiny impact against its skin. The tank itself is almost an extra character, its rusting, grimy interior, dripping with oil, grease and sweat, making it feel somehow organic, like the rumbling belly of some half-tamed beast, and the physical deterioration it suffers as it’s damaged by rifle and shell-fire echoes the psychological deterioration of the young men it shelters as they succumb to panic and terror. On the few occasions when the tank’s hatch opens, light and sound flood the stygian gloom within, overwhelming the crew who recoil almost in fear from this invasion.
While Lebanon is an assured and, at times, genuinely thrilling debut it will inevitably be compared to last year’s The Hurt Locker or even Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, comparisons it just as inevitably suffers from. While it shares Petersen’s submarine drama’s sense of confined tension, it lacks the subtle nuance and nerve-jangling terror of Das Boot or the multi-faceted characterisation of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning Iraq drama. Moaz’s characters are ciphers, not only indistinguishable from one another but indistinguishable from the stereotypical rookie soldiers of a thousand other war movies facing their first baptism of fire and blood. We don’t know them at the beginning and despite going through hell with them, we don’t really care about them by the end.
However, unlike the majority of myopically self-absorbed Israeli war films dealing with the invasion of Lebanon (Israelis – heroic & good, Arabs – baaaaaaaad), Moaz’s decision to eschew the politics and history of the situation, focusing instead on the hermetically sealed pressure cooker inside the tank in an attempt to come to terms with his own experiences, pays off. His soldiers are scared boys who panic, who screw-up, who know nothing of politics and care less; they just want to survive.
Morality gives way to hysteria in the film’s most devastating sequence; they shell a house where the enemy are holding an innocent family hostage, only the mother surviving to stagger from the ruins in a burning night-dress, searching frantically for her dead child. She’s left cowering and naked in the rubble of her home, traumatised and bereft. By placing his audience in the tank with the crew and forcing us to look at the world through Shmulik’s unblinking cross-hairs, Moaz makes us all culpable. Lebanon may not be subtle but it’s a visceral, powerful experience.
Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Strauss, Reymonde Amsellem
Hebrew, Arabic, French, English
Metrodome Distribution Ltd.