REVIEW: Krigen [A War] [2015]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 115 minutes | Release Date: September 10th, 2015 (Denmark)
Studio: Nordisk Film Distribution / Magnolia Pictures
Director(s): Tobias Lindholm
Writer(s): Tobias Lindholm

“B for Bang”

It’s not inconsequential that Tobias Lindholm‘s latest drama is simply and generically titled A War [Krigen]. This isn’t a story about Afghanistan or even Denmark—war is war no matter where it takes place or who is involved. Instead the film is about our actions both home and abroad, in the fight and outside it. It’s about our ever in flux notion of conscience and moral compass as it relates to patriotism rather than right or wrong. At the end of the day war is fought because governments deem it so. The military is sent to assist, protect, or advance and soldiers do their duty to comply. And in order for them to survive and achieve their goals, a brotherhood is formed. Therefore it’s always us versus them.

There’s a telling line delivered by Charlotte Munck‘s prosecutor towards the end of the film wherein she admits having empathy for the plight of Chief Claus Michael Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk). He was faced with the impossible decision to weigh a life against a life—his man opposite the possibility of innocents out of sight and mind. This empathy exists outside the law, though. We can support his actions from afar because we’re not affected first-hand like the judicial system, army, or families of the accused/victims/survivors that came out the other side of them. But was it correct? Was it just? Can he himself live with the consequences? Or should he lie? How much responsibility does his men complicit in the act shoulder themselves?

These questions arrive in large part because of what war has become. We no longer look our enemy in the eye with knife, sword, or musket in hand. Now we take cover and call an airstrike to kill with impunity, blame lying in murky waters shared by shot caller, button pusher, and commander sitting at the top of the pyramid from a perch miles and miles away. When the only human life physically in sight takes the form of a friend and countryman about to die, he becomes the priority. Bullets whizz and grenades explode and unless a decision is made this man and perhaps everyone else is dead. A “good” guy will die. But we forget the other side feels the same. Only to them they’re “good”.

Where that leaves us is in a purgatory of right and wrong no longer living in a world where it can remain black and white. Lindholm sees this and delivers it without a shred of subjectivity so we in the audience can decide for ourselves how we feel about the events onscreen. The writer/director isn’t interested in forcing our hands because the subject is divisive and complex enough to prove ill equipped at turning someone’s opinion if one has already been cultivated through years of life experience and moral fortitude. Nothing he could have twisted to fit a narrative he hoped to push would change what you think. So why not give it to us unfiltered, messy, and without easy answers? This is life. This is war. Period.

The film is split into two halves: a before and after of the “event”. And despite a ton of action on each side of the story (in Afghanistan and in Denmark), it’s all taken in stride because no one really has a choice to do anything but. The struggle facing Claus is just as monumental when you consider the consequences of not seeing his children exists in both venues. His one pursuit is to come home and put things back to normal, but in order to do his job abroad such hopes must be risked. The person left to keep things from falling apart is his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) thrust into a single parent role with three young kids in tow and differing stages of cognizance.

The youngest is too young to understand his circumstances and the eldest old enough to realize but not to do anything. In between is Julius, a boy who plain and simply misses his Dad so he acts out in violent defiance. There’s no support to combat their multiple levels of comprehension, instead each must mature beyond his/her years to stay healthy and moderately happy. This is the side of war not often talked about or depicted because it’s flashier to show the warzone or PTSD-ravaged shells returning for domestic skirmishes after. It’s just as important and resonating, though, since there are more people left behind than there are those who go to fight. So when the promise of normalcy is threatened once more, all bets are off.

As soon as the centerpiece ambush occurs we know compromises will be made. This goes for decisions within the conflict so as to exit it and those conjured when the dust settles and the adrenaline dissipates. The latter is when the fallout courtesy of strangers who know nothing of the chaos staring death in the face provides arrives with devastating consequences. Options must be weighed, the truth bent, and priorities re-aligned to decipher a way out of impossible situations. If our world were built in a way where this wasn’t necessary there wouldn’t be any wars because deception wouldn’t be in our vocabulary. As it is, mankind is nothing if not deceitful. Righteousness comes from drawing that line in which lies become tools for good.

Suddenly everyone involved must look within to discover his/her personal “good”. Pragmatism and emotion work in tandem to create a mental state where heinous acts are forgiven because life survived their wake. Every soldier under Claus’ command must discern truth from lie, allowing the exclusion of certain details to manufacture ambiguity where damnation would otherwise be cemented. No one portrays this better than Dar Salim as Claus’ conflicted second-in-command Najib Bisma. Novotny does it well too, weighing death against life to cope with what she asks her husband to do. But it’s Claus who must live with his actions and theirs—the choices they make meant to help him. Asbæk brilliantly takes it all on, filling Claus to the brim with guilt and nary a shred of regret.

[1] Pilou Asbæk in A WAR, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[2] Dar Salim and Pilou Asbæk in A WAR, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[3] Pilou Asbæk in A WAR, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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