Israel’s border with its northern neighbor Lebanon used to be known as “The Good Fence.” Unlike Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, Lebanon did not pursue hostilities against the Jewish state — until internal strife among the Lebanese allowed Hezbollah to stage raids across their southern border. Israel’s military response, in two wars, was inconclusive and devastating for both countries. Lebanon, where dreams of peace lie buried, is Israel’s Vietnam, the muse for two of its best recent films, Waltz with Bashir and Beaufort. To find as fine an American trio about the pointlessness of war as those two and Lebanon, look to Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket.
Lebanon shows us only as much of Lebanon as can be seen through the gun sights of an Israeli tank on one eventful day in June, 1982. Writer-director Samuel Moaz, a veteran of the first Lebanese war, restricts his action to the initial 24 hours of the conflict. The lighting is dim, and the shots vary between closeups and extreme closeups, subjecting a viewer to the same fog of war that envelops the four young men inside the tank. Just as The Hurt Locker is confined entirely to a grunt’s eye view of Iraq and Das Boot to a submarine patrolling the Atlantic, Lebanon denies us the luxury of perspective. Beyond sputtering radio commands that the soldiers receive and images caught in their sights, we, like they, have no idea what is happening outside the tank, which blunders into a nest of Syrian commandos. “Is this dangerous?” one of the panicked soldiers asks. “War is usually dangerous,” replies a disdainful officer.
In nominal charge of the armored vehicle is Assi (Itay Tiran), but his authority over his three comrades is compromised at the very outset when Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) challenges his order to stand guard while the others nap. The gunner, Shmulik (Yoaz Donat), has never fired in combat, and he freezes when ordered to shoot at a BMW, with disastrous consequences. Yigal (Michael Moshonov), the driver, misses his mother and, after nearly failing to start up the tank, steers them all into trouble. “Man is steel,” declares a motto engraved on a panel inside. “The tank is only iron.” But, amid the terrifying chaos, Lebanon is a portrait of men who lose their mettle.
Occasional visitors include the body of a dead Israeli soldier stored in the tank until it can be evacuated; a Syrian prisoner whose frantic pleas in Arabic the crew cannot understand; and a gruff major who climbs inside to bark out orders. Though he warns them that the use of phosphorus bombs is prohibited by international conventions, he approves the illicit tactic if euphemized as “flaming smoke.” Glamorous images of Paris, London, and New York provide a stark contrast to the mounting death and destruction, but they are merely posters in a bombed-out travel agency the tank rolls past. Lebanon closes, as it opens, on a field of sunflowers. For viewers trapped in the tank, plodding from one firefight to another, the image comes as a relief. But recall that Flanders’ fragrant poppy fields were fertilized with the corpses of World War I. •
Writ & dir. Samuel Maoz; feat. Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Michael Moshonov (R)