Lebanon, shot almost entirely from the point of view of a tank crew during Israel's 1982 conflict with Lebanon, is an unconventional, riveting look at war and the consequences that go along with holding such destructive power. The film's intimate setting, which offers relative protection from the outside world, also causes internal strife and anxiety. Claustrophobic and intense, Lebanon is a strong war film.
Lebanon opens as a four-member Israeli tank crew is ordered to advance toward the battlefield. Inside the tank are rookie gunner Shmulik, loader Hertzel, jittery driver Yigal, and Gamil, an inexperienced officer acting as their superior. The crew's first test comes when they are asked to clear a road for accompanying ground soldiers. Behind the crosshairs of the tank's big gun, Shmulik panics. His failure to fire gets a soldier killed, further traumatizing the reluctant trigger man.
As the armored jalopy rolls further toward the objective, Lebanon gives viewers plenty of shots filmed through the tank's periscopic sight. Each person facing the gun has a wild-eyed stare reminiscent of the famous National Geographic portrait of the "Afghan Girl." The disturbing ease with which lives can be taken is not lost on the crew, who argue over who should pull the trigger. The tank traps its passengers as participating observers. They receive orders from faceless commanders and only get infrequent, tense visits from their superior on the ground.
Lebanon excels in its exploration of the culture of war. The guys are at once stoic and downtrodden. They move from telling bawdy stories to worrying about their parents. In one morbidly humorous scene, the crew is told that, per international law, they are to call the tank's phosphorous shells "exploding smoke." It is this exploding smoke that kills women and children, the innocent collateral damage of war.
Director Samuel Maoz brings memories of the real-life horrors he experienced as a tank gunner in the Lebanon conflict to the film. The stress of a dead soldier along for a ride, the capture of a POW and a visit by an on-the-edge ground soldier all contribute to the crew's anxiety. There is much bickering aboard the tank. A few moments when the crew disobeys direct orders seem slightly unbelievable, but I trust Maoz has simply recreated the environment he remembers from the war.
The film's setting is no gimmick but a fresh vantage point for war. By the end of the film I was pining to get out of the tank and escape the closely drawn horrors within. Lebanon is emotionally draining but satisfying, and is one of the better war movies in recent memory.
Sony's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer for Lebanon is pleasing but imperfect. The transfer highlights the drab interiors of the tank, full of tans, greens and deep shadows. Detail gets a little murky in the deeper shadows, but blacks are generally bold without crushing the frame. Detail and texture are generally fine; some scenes feature striking detail while others are slightly soft. The film does have an occasionally digital appearance, and it seems that some light noise reduction may have been used.
The film's Hebrew 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track is excellent. Dialogue is clear and convincing inside the tank, and the soundtrack replicates the tight interiors well. The tank's engine, firing gun and collisions with debris are bold and rattling. The juxtaposition of sounds inside the tank with those from the outside world is an excellent mix of subdued horror and immediate danger. English subtitles are the only option.
The film's lone extra of merit, Notes on a War Film (24:24), is an excellent making-of documentary that looks at the challenges of filming inside a tank. The piece provides a first-hand look at how the actors tackled the difficult material and how the filmmakers kept the action authentic. The film's theatrical trailer (2:12) and bonus previews are also available.
Tense, claustrophobic and emotionally involving, the tank-centric war picture Lebanon is a welcome entry in the genre. Tackling war from within an armored vehicle gives the soldiers a detached but no less intense experience than of those on the ground. Director Samuel Maoz's past experiences as a soldier in the portrayed conflict lend a great deal of authenticity to the proceedings. Sony's DVD for Lebanon features good picture and audio and a nice making-of. Highly Recommended.