Tobias Lindholm continues to explore how trauma affects networks of people in this complex character study of a Danish officer whose compassion may be his undoing.It’s one of the best films of the year so far.
Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm’s A War, his follow-up to A Hijacking (2013), is as smart and complex as its predecessor, if not quite as nail-bitingly tense. This character study of an officer, Claus (Pilou Asbæk), fighting in Afghanistan, examines how his work and decisions reverberate around his family and his colleagues. Told with great empathy, the film interrogates how decisions should be made in war, how an officer should relate to his colleagues, and how we should punish soldiers for killing civilians. When memory is unreliable and accounts of battles are full of half-truths, the film shows how impossible it is to have definitive answers.
Lindholm’s films explore how trauma affects more than just the people directly experiencing it. In A Hijacking, a Danish ship was hijacked by pirates for months, and Lindholm cut between the agony on the ship and the seemingly sanitized calm of the company’s headquarters. But the longer it went on, the more the company’s CEO who was doing the negotiating felt personally responsible; he developed PTSD as much as the men in captivity. Similarly, the first half of A War is set in the thick of war, while the second finds Claus in a courtroom dealing with its consequences. But even during the war, Claus’s family’s lives are entirely defined by his absence. His eldest son is acting out because he misses his father. His wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) struggles to manage three children on her own; she organizes their lives around the potential of a call from Claus.
Lindholm establishes parallels between the chaos of Claus’ life in Afghanistan and Maria’s life back in Denmark: both of them are always triaging emergencies and dealing with interruptions. In one sequence, Claus is monitoring an explosive device, which is near some children playing but not an immediate threat. Suddenly, a man arrives to collect it, and before the soldiers are permitted to shoot, he surrounds himself with the children, blocking the patrol’s shot and putting the children in danger. Once resolved, Lindholm cuts to Maria bonding with her troubled eldest son in a quiet moment, only to be interrupted by her daughter screaming: her youngest son needs to be taken to the ER.
Structurally, Lindholm plays tricks with us, inviting us to question Claus’ level of personal engagement with his men. We first see him in the quiet of military headquarters during a routine patrol gone wrong, which ends in a soldier’s death. He seems detached from the action and devastation, hearing about it second-hand on a bad radio; he keeps track of the soldiers involved with a printed list. He reacts by taking charge of the daily patrol to boost morale. The next day, he’s confronted with a broken, crying Lasse whose sounds of grief and trauma fill the room. Claus handles Lasse kindly, gently, and thoughtfully. In a closeup, looks of concern, helplessness, and then resolve flash across Asbæk’s face, as he tries to do what he can for the hurting man within his job’s limitations.
But Claus’ compassion may be his undoing. Because he is in a constant state of stress, there’s only so much he can take before he breaks. His decisions have a domino effect. Tragedy begets tragedy because everyone’s affected by it. Claus spends much of the film trying to salvage the destruction left in the wake of the film’s first scene, potentially even overcompensating to catastrophic effect. It culminates during an unexpected battle when a soldier he’d been protecting gets a bullet in the neck. He reacts by ordering an airstrike on a target he hasn’t fully confirmed is a military one: he can’t fathom being responsible for one more death that day, and it’s his only recourse for getting a helicopter to take the injured man to safety. But he doesn’t know the airstrike will kill 11 civilians, forcing him to return home and stand trial for the crime.
Lindholm emphasizes that how people view Claus’ decision depends entirely on context. To the men at war, Claus saves a fellow soldier’s life. At the time, when we can hear the heavy breathing of the scared soldiers and feel the chaos of the handheld camera, we feel this, too. Back in civilisation, in the calm of the sterile courtroom full of suited lawyers, soldiers are people who volunteer to face danger, and some of them will die. Killing civilians is always unacceptable. But Maria isn’t convinced he should serve time even though he feels guilty and ready to suffer the consequences of his actions. “You’ll just have to suffer the consequences?”, she retorts. His imprisonment would take the biggest toll on her and their children. And we can see Claus is already wracked. Would a conviction do anything but save face for the state? He certainly would never repeat this ‘mistake’.
Who bears ‘responsibility’ for Claus’ fateful decision hangs over the film. Claus’s initial detachment from others might have been a problem, making his next steps reasonable and human — but does he become too invested to make thoughtful decisions? On the other hand, every decision is inflected by the rules of military procedure — which may conflict with what seems necessary at the time, leaving him feeling helpless enough to potentially be reckless. A War allows for both interpretations simultaneously, making it difficult to know where to place the blame. Lindholm anchors this conflict in our own empathy for the characters, so that we find ourselves in the same murky moral ground as Claus.
A War opens in New York City and L.A. on Feb. 12 and in San Francisco on Feb. 19.