In last year’s The Hurt Locker, war was a drug, an addiction which some could not tear themselves away from. It told of lives spent in constant danger and the spectre of death hanging in the air, yet, for some, a state they could not live without.
Lebanon, set during the Israeli-Lebanese War in 1982, paints a similarly corrosive portrait of war, but not one as adrenalin-fuelled as Kathryn Bigelow’s. Samuel Moaz’s film explores how young men not trained for combat or eager for battle deal with the debilitating effects of such a conflict.
Like The Hurt Locker, Lebanon doesn’t engage in the politics of war. It tells its story through the eyes of the men in a lone tank dispatched to a Lebanese town following bombardment by the Israeli Air Force. Shmuel, the gunner, Assi, the commander, Herzl, the loader and Yigal the driver are the tank’s crew, men barely out of their teens.
And it’s another war film, Oliver Stone’s Platoon, that Lebanon harks back to, its tag line: “The first casualty of war is innocence”, the overriding feeling evoked in how soul-destroying their mission becomes.
Shmuel, whose only training has been shooting at gasoline barrels in Israel, carries the lives of others in his fingers. One minute he’s asleep, the next ordered to open fire on a civilian car that seems to hold no threat. A moment later, and one of their soldiers is dead, his body left inside the tank to carry home and serve as a horrifying reminder of how a second’s hesitation can be fatal.
Moaz’s camera puts us inside the tank with them. All medium and close shots, he captures the tight, cramped space that these men occupy and its gradual decline into an inhospitable, almost alien world. He makes us feel the stifling heat and smell the rotting odours, an experience as uncomfortable as it is gripping.
He alternates between this and the battle scenes outside, using Shmuel’s POV and having us see the crosshairs of the tank’s gun sight as he surveys the ruined streets. It makes everything a target, something to be dispatched with cold ruthlessness or ignored and left to survive for itself somehow.
A mother desperately searching for her daughter looks directly at him and at us, the audience, but there’s nothing we can do for her, no explanation we can give for why this is happening.
What makes the film so gripping is that Moaz remembers the most important factor isn’t how well constructed the battle scenes are but how much we care for the characters and share their plight. They start as bickering and posturing boys, arguing with each other over the smallest of things: who gets to sleep for half an hour, whether they should be smoking.
It’s not long before those moments seem a lifetime ago, and the film etches each character so vividly that you can see them change and lose a part of themselves along the way.
Moaz sometimes overplays it. Shots of their faces reflected in the puddle of the tank floor come off a little heavy-handed. But he also strikes incredible moments of dark humour that leave a lingering sense of tragedy, as with a truck blown up by Shmuel causing a cartoon-like shower of chicken feathers before revealing a horrifying casualty.
It’s an incredibly powerful film, made even more so when you realise that director Moaz was one of those men in a tank in Lebanon in 1982. In the press notes he reveals it in stark honesty: “On June 6, 1982, at 6:15 AM, I killed a man for the first time in my life.”
Calling it this year’s The Hurt Locker may be too easy, but it deserves to be seen just as much as Bigelow’s Oscar-winner.
Lebanon is in UK cinemas from today.