Review: a new way to talk about "A War"

A year has not passed since the birth of film without movies concerning love, death, and war. They’re the universal topics everyone must battle with, and stories about them will be told until the end of storytelling, or time, whichever comes first. War has always seemed the odd outlier in this group though. Every human that will ever live will be directly affected by love and death. War touches every life in a less direct, more global sense. This could lend explanation to why the story of “A War” — the 2016 Oscar nominee from Denmark — feels overtold out of the gate.

The film follows Commander Claus Pedersen and his army unit stationed in a province in Afghanistan, as well as the struggles of his family at home in Denmark. It’s told in a pretty standard structure of a war film until an incident happens involving the death of civilians, blurring the lines of morality and putting a bullseye on the back of our protagonist.

“A War” is impeccably filmed and acted throughout. The opening act is brutally tense, given that the first real event is an unexpected explosion of a land mine. But once that tension begins to fade, “A War” starts to feel a tad redundant. While the craft is certainly at a high level, it creeps into the territory of just another movie about how much war sucks. Luckily, the proceedings are anchored by skilled and confident performances from Pilou Asbæk and Tuva Novotny.

Pilou Asbæk in A WAR, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

When the film truly becomes essential is in its second half. After the turning point, where Pedersen makes a morally ambiguous call, the film turns its concerns from the struggles of war to the complicated nature of military law, and the complexities of commanding men to kill.

The incident in question happens so quickly, it is impossible for the audience to even be alerted of any potential wrongdoing. This is a clever trick which leaves the audience in a similar position to the jury, as well as the protagonist.

The courtroom scenes are handled with outstanding subtlety by writer and director Tobias Lindholm. He has control of his audience’s interpretation at every turn and manipulates it skillfully. In the end, “A War” succeeds in creating a captivating story, while simultaneously breathing new life into the war genre.