Director: Tobias Lindholm
Cast: Pilou Asbæk, Tuva Novotny
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The first casualty of war is truth, goes the old adage. The casualties of conflict are certainly no stranger to cinema, with everyone from Stanley Kubrick to Kathryn Bigelow depicting its horrors on screen for decades. Tobias Lindholm’s A War, then, arguably has little new to say. Instead, it resorts to carefully going back over old ground – a fact that only makes it more gripping.
Pilou Asbæk plays army commander Claus M. Pedersen, who is leading a team in an Afghan province, while his wife struggles to raise their three kids at home. Soon, though, a routine operation goes awry, and Claus finds him and his men in serious trouble – and facing a tough decision.
So far, so standard. As you’d expect from the director of A Hijacking, the action is thrillingly presented, all handheld cameras and intense performances, but the film takes its time to get to the crucial crossroads, giving us the chance to fall in with Claus’ pack before the proverbial hits the fan. Lindholm has a superb command of pacing and scale, keeping things low-key and believable (think The Hurt Locker rather than Platoon) and slowing down the moments in between the combat to explore its toll upon the troops. Lasse, in particular, has a strikingly tender moment, as he tries to process the loss of a team member. The concerns of the locals, meanwhile, are also heard, in long, winding conversations of repeated phrases and stressed translation.
All of that carefully feeds into the climactic set piece, which combines domestic peril and international politics to nailbiting effect – the explosive decision Claus has to make is less about fighting and more about friendship.
Whether other films might stop there, though, A War keeps going – and that’s where it gets really good.
Asbæk is nothing less than amazing in the lead. The Danish actor has been in everything from Borgen to Luc Besson’s Lucy. He’s even hosted the Eurovision Song Contest – is there anything he can’t do? He’s worked with Lindholm before on A Hijacking, which explored the fallout of a hostage situation on a Danish merchant ship, and you can tell that the filmmaker and star are on the same page, the actor capable of shouting orders mid-battle and breaking down moments later.
That’s where Lindholm really excels as a story-teller: just as A Hijacking spent as much time focusing on the boardroom battles to free the captured vessel as the lives on board, A War devotes half of its runtime to studying the impact of Claus’ call. We see the ripples through his home life, as his spouse (the heartbreakingly good Tuva Novotny) deals with the unruly behaviour of their youngest son; we see the legal ramifications in courtroom exchanges that crackle with quiet suspense; and we see the positive benefits it has for his squad.
Between this, A Hijacking and The Hunt, which the director co-write with Thomas Vinterberg, Tobias Lindholm is unrivalled at examining both the political and personal tensions of the modern world. In his hands, even the familiar subject of war feels raw. The title makes it clear that this isn’t the only time such grey territory has been entered by the military, Danish or otherwise. In a war, every action, the director reminds us, has consequences. And he analyses them in riveting detail.
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