The wars in the Middle East are so often seen through the lens of the U.S. media that it’s easy to forget there are others fighting alongside us. That was brought home with the force of a roadside IED last year in the harrowing but little-seen English film Kilo Two Bravo, which is based on the true story of a group of British soldiers trapped in a minefield in Afghanistan.
Now comes the more high profile but equally powerful Danish film A War, which was nominated in the foreign-language film category at this year’s Academy Awards. Like Kilo Two Bravo, it’s set in Afghanistan but instead focuses on a group of Danish soldiers, led by the dutiful Claus Michael Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek), who seems to have the balance of easy authority and honest empathy that makes him the right guy to have in charge.
Their routine of keeping the Taliban at bay while trying to make inroads with the non-enemy locals makes for an uneasy peace. But when Pederson’s squad comes under attack, gravely injuring one of his soldiers, Pedersen makes the fateful decision to call in air strikes on the location from where he thinks the enemy fire is originating.
The result of the bombing is 11 civilian deaths, a court-martial, and a future of doubt and guilt.
But A War isn’t just about the war abroad. It’s about the war he faces back home, where he’s brought up on charges; the last half of the film is a taut courtroom drama.
Then there’s the quieter war his wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny), has to wage to keep their family and marriage together while both are under tremendous stress. One of the children is acting out at school, a direct result of the fractures in the family.
If Claus is found guilty and sent away, these particular battles will only worsen. But the families of the innocents who perished due to Claus’ order deserve some justice, too. The ramifications from Pedersen’s split-second decision made in the heat of battle run far and deep.
Director Tobias Lindholm seems to love stories of men wrestling with life-changing circumstances. He wrote the script for The Hunt, about a man wrongly accused of child molestation, and directed A Hijacking, which also starred Asbaek, about those negotiating the release of a vessel seized by Somali pirates.
But the haunting and stark A War may be his most striking and effective work yet.
In Danish with English subtitles
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☆☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Tobias Lindholm
Cast: Pilou Asbaek, Tuva Novotny, Dar Salim
Rated: R (strong language, war-related images)
Running time: 115 min.