Set during the First Lebanon War, Lebanon is an Israeli war film that is presented entirely from the perspective of a band of boyish soldiers operating a tank through desolate streets. I’ve always been a sucker for “one room” dramas-like Rope or more recently Buried-so long as the premise isn’t relegated to a gimmick, and Lebanon dodges that bullet effortlessly given the breadth of physical and emotional conflicts a warzone can provide. This is gritty stuff, and while that term is thrown around liberally within the war genre, I believe Lebanon’s unique plot device elevates it from any harsh, comparative scrutiny. My review of the Blu-Ray after the jump.
The setting is the First Lebanon War. A sole tank escorts a squad of paratroopers to a hotel rally point north of their position, struggling against the immorality and atrocities of war as they pass through enemy establishments. Along the way a misguided order finds them alone in a ravaged town surrounded by unfriendly Syrians. The team in question: an egocentric commander named Assi (Itay Tiran), a cynical ammunition loader named Hertzel (Oshri Cohen), a jittery gunner named Shmulik (Yoav Donat), and Yigal (Michael Moshonov), the quiet driver. Without scouts or supplies and suffering from mechanical failures due to RPG damage, the young tank crew’s mission turns from fulfilling their duty to ensuring their own survival.
Lebanon’s singular setting creates palpable claustrophobia and tension by solely sharing the experiences of the soldiers inside the tank, who see and participate in the terror of war through the scope of their cannon as the audience does through the scope of the lens. The principal actors turn in impressive, emotional performances. While their characters’ backstories are either nonexistent or painfully cliché, there is sufficient development from their believable, on-the-fly reactions to breathe life into them. Having never been a member of a tank crew in Lebanon, I obviously cannot speak to whether this depiction of the Lebanon War or the tank environment is kosher, but director Samuel Maoz is a veteran of the conflict and that’s good enough for me as I never questioned its authenticity. Knowing that, I was also pleasantly surprised to find a fairly unbiased political view of the events, so if either that or documentary-level accuracy is what you’re on the prowl for I’d point you in the direction of the fascinating Waltz With Bashir.
However, the oft-employed “War is Hell” message was laid on a tad thick for my taste, at times inducing an eye roll or two. A scene in which the tank gunner is ordered to fire on an oncoming truck without providing a warning shot comes to mind, which was fine until the aftermath revealed the driver to be an elderly chicken farmer screaming “Peace!” repeatedly whilst nursing a missing limb…he is subsequently executed. Scenes such as these are relatively common and actually diminish the impact of the film due to their melodramatic theatricality. Lastly, the cinematography for the “scope view” was initially bothersome because it would zoom in and out of focus and alter its targets with rapid succession, giving off an awkward documentary camerawork vibe.
Sony Pictures Classics presents this Blu-Ray in 1.78:1 1080p video with a Hebrew 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track and English subtitles, and it’s one they should be proud of. The disc’s picture quality is consistently crisp despite 90% of the drama occurring in the oily belly of a rusted tank; the black levels are flawless. Similarly, the audio track rose to the strict expectation for war films on home video: the viewer must become a soldier at the frontline. With this Blu-Ray, you feel every gunshot and explosion as well as the roars and rumbles of the tank’s engine without missing a beat of the dialogue. Color me impressed.
This is a nearly barebones disc on the special features front; Outside of the theatrical trailer and a slew of previews, there is a lone standard definition special feature called “Notes on a War Film”. It is supposed to be a making-of, but the footage is painfully raw and almost every cast/crew member begins ranting about the Israel/Palestine conflict by the end of their interview for whatever reason. There was one gem of a factoid that came out of it: the tank used in the film was fully functional and borrowed from a civilian who had it parked outside his house.