REVIEW: לבנון [Lebanon] [2009]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 93 minutes | Release Date: September 24th, 2009 (Israel)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): Samuel Maoz
Writer(s): Samuel Maoz

“Man is steel. The tank is only iron.”

The First Lebanon War began in June 1982 when the Government of Israel launched a military operation against the PLO and their Syrian and Muslim Lebanese allies. Rather than tell that story in a broad, war epic way, writer director Samuel Maoz decided to encapsulate the fear, horror, and chaos by creating a story around an Israeli foursome on a simple mission, the tank support for a platoon dispatched to search a hostile town. לבנון [Lebanon] ends up being the Rear Window of war films as each second until the end takes place inside this tank, a camera rotating from face to face as they cope with the emotional and psychological turmoil inherent in the fight. Our view of the outside is through only the crosshaired scope of triggerman Shulik (Yoav Donat), a series of pans and magnifications catching the tragedy unfolding around them as both terrorists and innocents are murdered in the streets. We watch through his fear, the staccato frames of war shrouded in heavy breathing and the hesitation to own the life and death decisions his position entails.

Shmulik is the newest to the team, the gunman joining ranking officer Assi (Itay Tiran), Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) the weapon loader, and Yigal (Michael Moshonov) the driver. Everyone seems in good spirits as introductions are made, but the stress of their claustrophobia arrives quickly once platoon leader Gamil (Zohar Shtrauss) gives them their orders. After and hour for sleep, any vehicle approaching is to get a missile to its engine. No one is to get a chance to harm them on the way to town; everyone is to be seen as a hostile enemy and dispatched without hesitation. The problem with this, though, is that the tank team is young and inexperienced. Shmulik has never seen action before, his trigger use relegated to shooting cans in preparation only. So, when he sees the car barreling forward, the orders barked to shoot, and the frightened eyes of the driver through his windshield, he not only pauses, but shoots warning shots to the side, letting the car get closer and one of the gun-toting Arabs to exit, shooting an Israeli soldier before being shot himself.

It’s not just Shmulik who freezes up. His commanding officer has a scope and trigger as well, but instead of firing, Assi yells orders. It is the first sign of breakdown from him, an officer who had up until this point been ‘one of the guys’, creating an atmosphere that made it hard for him to give orders without resistance, especially from Hertzel. The most vocal in the tank, the weapons loader is unafraid to stand up to his superior, light a cigarette, question his motives, and willingly act subordinate to get his way without punishment. He is the most even-headed of them all, seeing that things aren’t right and knowing they could die at any second. Hertzel wants answers from Gamil, he wants to know what the silent conversations we watch through the scope involve. Gamil is on his phone to ‘Pluto’, a codename for headquarters who relay the platoon has gone off course into Syrian occupied territory. They can’t be evacuated and it’s of the utmost importance that the tank cannot fall into enemy hands.

So, after being shot up by an RPG, becoming the jail for the Syrian who fired it, and barely able to start the ignition, the tank must leave or risk capture. A duo of Phalangists, (Christian Lebanese), are sent to lead the way to safety. Led by Ashraf Barhom, the Israelis don’t know if they can trust their new guides. Gamil wants air support and assurances, but he gets none. The affable Barhom has his own motives too; he wants the prisoner for his own kind of interrogation. After checking to see if the four know Arabic, he proceeds to berate the Syrian with whispered threats, smiling and speaking in English to the soldiers that it was a pleasure meeting them. We in the audience see the ruse and can guess that the Israelis infer something strange going on too, but when the prisoner begins screaming and stomping his feet, they try their best to reassure him and give morphine to calm him down. They are stuck in this iron prison also, unknowing of what’s going on, scared for their lives, and beginning to crack under the pressure. Caught behind enemy lines in a foreign country, there is nothing to grab hold of for hope of survival.

And this is why Lebanon is one of the best war films I have ever seen. It makes you experience the same fear as the characters onscreen, trapped alongside them without a way out. People come in through the hatch door above, bright light and chicken feathers fly in, and we can almost smell the stink inside as we watch the faces of the men, themselves trying not to get sick. Emotions run high, shown in close-up as the film goes on, faces getting more scared as each second passes. Moshonov is perfect as the young kid wanting nothing more than word to get to his aging mother that he’s still alive; Cohen wears a mask of calm over his tumultuous interior; Tiran wrestles with his own break in sanity as control is taken out of his hands by the chaos happening outside; and Donat is the perfect entry point for us, the newcomer, his compassion for humanity unable to let him pull the trigger on a Lebanese family held hostage by the terrorists shooting his men. Even Shtrauss, the supposed commander of the mission, with ice in his veins and a take no crap attitude, shows his own unease once realizing he is alone with no way out.

Lebanon is a nightmare—lingering on the dirty puddles with soggy cigarette butts on the tank floor, showing the blood and sweat streaked faces of men trapped and unable to leave if the vehicle has life, and forcing us to watch the horrors outside, powerless to do anything to help. You will be left with memories of Hussein Mahagna screaming on the ground when his chicken truck is shot, the figure of Dudu Tassa standing in the crosshairs as his RPG flies towards you will be burned to your retinas, and the screams of Reymond Amsalem will unshakably reverberate in your ears, just an unfortunate woman whose family was cut in the firefight. It is in the Lebanese innocents on the street where we begin to feel Shmulik’s trepidation and disgust for what it is he is tasked to do. It’s not their fight; the PLO has taken refuge in Southern Lebanon and the Israelis have followed to take them out after an assassination attempt on Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. The soldiers portrayed are helpless to do anything but sit and wait. These are the horrors of war and we get front row seats to watch.

[1] Reymonde Amsellem as Lebanese Mother. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
[2] Left to Right: Fares Hananya as Second Phalangist Member and Ashraf Barhom as Phalangist Member. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

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