Review by Miranda Schiller/@
Claus (Pilou Asbaek) is the commander of a Danish unit in Afghanistan. He wants to do right by everyone: The local population – he strongly believes in the purpose of his mission to protect and support them, and tries as he might to build a trusting relationship with the locals. His soldiers – he is careful to personally connect to each of them and to stay on their level, not keeping himself out of the danger they face, coming out on patrols with them every day. And his wife and three children at home in Denmark, calling them regularly and trying to be a father to his children as best he can.
It may well be the result of all this self-investment that leads to him making an ill-advised, if well-intended decision under a lot of pressure, resulting in the death of 11 civilians, and in Claus being sent home and facing court martial. A new moral and personal dilemma arises: if he pleads guilty, he will face prison and abandon his family for even longer. This dilemma becomes the center of the film, but more details would spoil the suspense.
In three very distinct settings (the front, the home, the court), A War shows three spheres this war is carried out in and influencing. And for all the visual and atmospheric contrasts between the dusty deserts of Afghanistan, the cozy glow of a Scandinavian family house, and the sober, the wood – panelled courtroom, the dominant feeling in all three settings is ambiguity.
The exasperated prosecutor is undoubtedly talking sense, but emotionally, we cannot help rooting for Claus. The soldiers in Afghanistan are all trying to do their bit, some more invested in the local population, speaking their language and going into villages to dress wounds and console parents and children, others joking around after having successfully hit a target (that is, killed a man), others having trouble recovering from seeing a friend die. But none of them take the war lightly, and all seem to know how real it is. This is largely due to director Tobias Lindholm casting real-life soldiers for most of the supporting parts, making the Afghanistan scenes seem very real and almost documentary-like.
In the home, after Claus is sent back, he has to face not only the consequences of his actions in far away and now unreal-seeming Afghanistan, but also the very acute needs of his real and alive family. “Never mind what you should have done, the important thing is what you are going to do now”, his wife says (a wonderfully strong and pragmatic Tuva Nowotny), which becomes a bit of a leitmotif for the remainder of the film, counter to the ongoing current of constant ambiguity.
An ambiguity personified by Claus, trying to do the right thing, but discovering more and more that there is a wrong side of every right thing. Pilou Asbaek brings the inner conflict to the surface artfully, without resorting to clichés.
Instead of condemning the war, Lindholm seems to accept the fact it exists and shows some of the impact it has on our lives – from a strictly Western perspective, it has to be added. Afghans figure as tropes more than as persons. But coming from a European director, this is probably a wiser move than trying to adopt a perspective he would not have the substantial knowledge.
Without too much drama, in a decidedly sober, Scandinavian fashion, A War nonetheless makes a strong commentary on the effects war has on people and spheres well beyond its immediate reach, concluding that there can never be one clear answer to anything. With that, it transcends the subject of war, expanding this ambiguity and uncertainty to all of life’s actions and decisions.