More than 14 years later and the war in Afghanistan is still going on. President Obama declared the end of U.S. military combat operations in Afghanistan in December of 2014, but 9,800 American troops and 3,200 NATO troops remain there to prop up the ineffectual Afghan Army as the longest war in U.S. history unofficially continues. The war is so far from over, in fact, that just last week, the United Nations reported that there were 7,457 civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2015, a record high for this war. Despite these alarming statistics, media ink and airtime dedicated to the daily situation on the ground there is sparse, which seems just fine by the war-weary public, so much so that the Korean War may no longer lay the strongest claim to the title of Forgotten War.
The understated, fictional A War, written and directed by Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm, best known for gritty dramas such as R (2010) and A Highjacking (2012), doesn’t aspire to remind the world that war still rages in Afghanistan, although, with its recent Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category, it may have that effect. What it does aspire to is something more complex and challenging: to show, in a realistic way, the private suffering of those caught up by the ruthless, far-reaching tentacles of war. In this way, Lindholm has made the anti-Lone Survivor, Peter Berg’s 2013 hagiography of a superhuman SEAL team ambushed on a mission in Afghanistan, that could double as an official recruiting video for the U.S. Navy. While Lone Survivor treats nuance with contempt, A Warregards nuance as not only a tool that enhances storytelling, but as a value worth pursuing in its own right.
The film accomplishes this through a messy structure that begins with a company of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan, led by Commander Claus M. Pedersen, played with a likable stoicism by Pilou Asbæk, as it carries out low-level missions such as sweeping the desolate terrain for land mines and providing security for a few scattered villages, periodically intercut with scenes of Pedersen’s wife (Tuvu Novotny, who lends the role a certain grace and empathy) and three children struggling without him back in Denmark. From his quick and decisive action after one of his men steps on a mine early in the film, we see that Pedersen is a good soldier. He’s smart, well-liked, and respected. From the way he speaks to his family, it’s clear he is a good husband and father. He is a good person, probably better than most. But, the strength of A War is in its refusal to settle for simplicity.
Things are complicated by a big set piece wherein Taliban fighters attack Pedersen’s company as the men travel to check on some villagers who had asked for Pedersen’s help a day before. One of his men is critically wounded in a firefight. In order to save the soldier’s life Pedersen breaks protocol and makes a decision that ensures the man will live, but lands the commander in a courtroom back in Denmark, accused of committing war crimes.
The final act plays out almost entirely inside the courtroom while his poor, tormented family and loyal soldiers look on. It’s the kind of impossible situation that war thrusts upon good people. But, despite the fact that our hearts break for Pedersen and his family, the fact remains that he broke a key rule of engagement that directly caused the deaths of innocent people. If he is convicted, it will put a good man in jail and cause more harm to an already suffering family. If he is found innocent, a man who broke the law will go free, and the innocent victims of his action will have no justice. Neither verdict will give us satisfaction, and when the court’s decision is finally read in a cold, judicial monotone, an oppressive emptiness hangs in the air. There are no winners.
While A War brilliantly and delicately handles the universal horrors of war, especially its quiet horrors ignored by many Hollywood war films, it falls short in one small way. Most of the Western characters are well-developed, three-dimensional people with beliefs, desires, and complex emotions. Many of the Afghan villagers are too. But, the faces of the Taliban fighters are completely absent. The enemy is only seen briefly, through binoculars or telescopic lenses attached to high-powered rifles. It feels like a major oversight for a film so committed to the idea that right and wrong are merely oversimplified constructs, white and black, in a world that exists in grayscale. If a good man is capable of doing evil, are then evil men not capable of doing good? Despite this shortcoming, A War marks a major entry into the oeuvre of Danish cinema, continuing its rich tradition of ambitious, realistic, and morally complex work, and places it among the likes of Restrepo (2010) and Taxi to the Dark Side (2008) as one of the better war movies of the decade.