A War has been released in the UK at a time when high profile comments are being made about the actions of troops fighting abroad. Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, was reported in the Telegraph as saying soldiers were inhibited on the battlefield because they feared 'ambulance-chasing British law firms' would haul them in front of the courts on their return. And only last week the BBC reported that lawyers are continuing to refer alleged abuse by soldiers to the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) whose inquiry has considered at least 1,515 possible victims, of whom 280 are alleged to have been unlawfully killed.
In this challenging new film, director Tobias Lindholm does not allow us to sit idly on the fence or let us pretend that war and its innocent victims have nothing at all to do with us as we live our relatively cosy lives far away from the many front lines. Indeed, he forces us to make our own judgements over what are the many grey areas and wobbly lines of demarcation, issues of what is justified and under which circumstances decisions which mean civilians and soldiers really do die split seconds after the order is given, are right or wrong.
Lindholm draws us into such an arena of war, as we experience with commander, Claus M. Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk), leader of a group of Danish soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, both actual and moral minefields as he tries to strike a balance between protecting his men from the Taliban and nurturing and defending local Afghans and their families. Decent and compassionate, Claus’s attempts to help Afghanis in need are strangled by army regulations, which causes him to question his orders and instincts to protect his men.
Events happen with shocking rapidity as the ground literally blows up over his head and beneath his feet taking two of his men, one in a body bag, the other to intensive care via Medivac. And back at home his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) shows the other face of war; the plight of army wives, as she tries to be both mother and father to their three children under a shadow which looms over them all thousands of miles away.
We watch as the middle child, Julius, starts having problems at school, the youngest swallows some pills and has to have his stomach pumped and the eldest child indelicately asks her father whether he has ever killed any children. One wonders whether the regular phone calls between Claus and his family do more harm than good as they are exposed to happenings in each others lives and are totally impotent and powerless to help one another.
What begins as an intimate insight into brutal combat turns in the second half of the film to a courtroom drama in which we are thrown into a series of moral dilemmas along with the jury as they have to decide whether Claus is guilty of sending in an air attack to Compound Six, where he finds out later eleven Afghan civilians were killed, eight of them children. As the two worlds collide, the domestic and professional, we see Claus smoking in his backyard, the conflict, guilt and regret etched into his face as he is accused as a war criminal and is torn apart by the pleas from his wife to lie about what happened in action.'You might have killed eight children but you have three here at home who need you!'
What's at stake is four years of his life if he is found guilty as charged, his marriage and role as a father, loyalty to his men and his own instinct that he did the right thing in the heat of battle.
Using real soldiers, Afghan local people, those who truly had witnessed and experienced conflict, Lindholm gives us a very realistic portrayal of war. No Hollywood simulations and supermen here. He had a group of eight to twelve professional soldiers and people from Afghanistan who gave him all the details and reactions, showed him the military professional approach to how soldiers really move, how they hold a gun.
In an interview Lindholm said: 'I never directed them really. I had them to direct me. I didn't want them to act; I wanted them to react. I would never tell them when an explosion would go off. They weren't prepared, so they could react instead of waiting for something to happen…' The resulting direction is inspired, with silence used as powerfully as the thundering engines of war: the intense vibration of explosions you feel in your seat set alongside the words you cannot hear as you observe from outside their home Claus telling his wife why he has been returned from Afghanistan early. The body language is all.
Lindholm succeeds in encouraging us to feel empathy, as we almost sit alongside Claus in the dock. You weigh up the arguments, what you have seen, the heat of battle and the mute appeal of local Afghans and cannot help but wonder what you would have done under the same circumstances. For in a war, there are seldom certainties and there is definitively no time for hindsight.
Click here to book tickets for A War, currently showing at FACT.