"a remarkable film. A moving account of the toll that war can take on those who risk their lives in the battlefield"
The war in Afghanistan is, for most of us, a painful reminder of the modern world we live in. Many men and women from many countries sacrificed their lives serving in the conflict in order to root out terrorist insurgents and to help the civilian population rebuild their war ravaged country into a modern democratic society. However, the war also took its toll on those who remained at home: the wives, husbands, children, siblings, and parents of those who went to fight; forced to contend with the constant worry over their beloved family member’s safety and the heart-breaking grief when their loved ones didn’t make it home. The subject of today’s review, Oscar-nominated Danish drama A War, looks at the impact this controversial and tragic war has on those who served and their families at home.
We focus on Claus Peterson, a commander of a company of Danish soldiers stationed in Afghanistan as they patrol the treacherous Helmand Province, in search of insurgents and to protect the local population. Back home, Claus’s exhausted wife Maria attempts to bring up their three young children and hold things together, all the while missing her husband dreadfully. The two are reunited however when Claus is returned home to Denmark to face a court case in which he is accused of committing a war crime during a fierce firefight on the battlefield.
The visual style of the film is perfectly chosen, adopting a minimalist approach with heavy use of handheld cameras, giving the film a documentary-like aesthetic. This approach is especially harrowing in the Afghanistan scenes in which the realism of the situation is expertly captured, aided by a supporting cast of real Afghan war veterans who play Peterson’s platoon.
The film also does not flinch when showing the brutality of the Afghan war, which saw IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) become the favourite weapon of insurgency forces. We are given an up-close view of the physical damage that such weapons can do to a human being and the camera does not shy away from the gruesome and bloody outcome.
Those expecting huge battles sequences normally found in Hollywood war films will be disappointed, as this focuses on the more mundane aspects of this modern war. The platoon could go days without having to fire a shot, keeping themselves busy with seemingly never-ending patrols and aid projects with the local populous. However, often this mundane atmosphere is shattered in an instant as all hell breaks loose and they are confronted with some horrific sights.
The film’s lead performances come across as extremely naturalistic, with the characters feeling like real people you could meet in the world. The performance from Pilou Asbæk as Claus is particularly moving as a soldier who has dedicated himself to keeping his men alive, and a scene in which he comforts a grief-stricken comrade is a particular showcase of this fraternal bond. Despite his calm exterior is an exhausted and tormented soldier, with Asbæk capturing this torment perfectly with his haunted face and tired eyes, often needing no dialogue to convey his emotional turmoil. Tuva Novotny as Claus’s Danish wife Maria is also exemplary, believably conveying the exhaustion and worry that afflicted many families during the war. Her frustration movingly captured in a scene where she comforts her young son at the hospital, as the child cries for his absent father, barely concealing her sadness at his absence.
The film does drag somewhat when it moves towards a legal drama, as Claus has to defend himself against war crime charges; although in fairness to remove these scenes would undermine one of the film’s core themes. It looks at what right those at home have in determining the legality of the soldiers’ actions in such a difficult or desperate situation – they’ve no real understanding of the brutality these forces were faced with on a daily basis.
A War is a remarkable film. A moving account of the toll that war can take on those who risk their lives in the battlefield, and those who remain at home kept company by the constant worry for their loved ones thousands of miles away. With compelling performances and an engrossing story, this story is a timely reminder of the tragedy of the war in Afghanistan and of the wounds it opened for many soldiers and their families - wounds which for some have still yet to heal.