The Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards was strong. And while Danish war drama “A War” didn’t win – there was no stopping the very deserving “Son of Saul” – it packs a somber punch.
Centered around a military commander in Afghanistan and his loved ones back home in Denmark, Tobias Lindholm’s film is a story of fast, difficult decisions with long-lasting consequences. It is a far more contemplative film than the likes of “American Sniper” or “13 Hours,” and that’s a key reason for its success.
For Claus Michael Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek, “A Highjacking,” “Game of Thrones”), everyday life is a series of life and death decisions. He is the man most directly responsible for the safety of his company, and as the film’s brutal opening shows, tragedy can happen in an instant.
Meanwhile, Claus’ wife, Maria (the wondrous Tuva Novotny), is raising three children and overseeing a household still coping with his absence.
During their phone conversations, we can tell how much Claus feels for his troops. One of these men is Lasse (Dulfi Al-Jabouri), a young man wracked with guilt over the death of a younger soldier. During one particularly heart-wrenching scene, he breaks down while asking Claus if he can go home.
Of course, he cannot yet. Lasse’s health is, of course, one of many worries for Claus. And when Lasse is shot during a routine mission, Claus does whatever he can do to save the soldier’s life.
However, he does so by making a split-second decision that results in civilian deaths. And it is here when “A War” shifts from on-ground combat drama to a reflection on morality and honesty.
In short, does Claus tell a lie so he can avoid years of jail time? Or does he merely accept his punishment?
The final third of “A War” consists mainly of courtroom drama, and this is a bit of a miscalculation. These scenes run too long and feel too mechanical. Thankfully, a late reveal livens up the proceedings. It is not entirely unexpected, but it does up the emotional ante.
While these structural issues keep “A War” from greatness, the assured direction and strong performances keep our interest.
As Claus, Asbaek is complex and intelligent, a dedicated commander grappling with the moral quagmires that stem from contemporary Afghanistan. Whether dealing with his troops or tucking his children into bed, he is a believable everyman.
Even better is Novotny as Maria. She is sick of being, essentially, a single parent, and cuts through her husband’s ethical dilemma with startling directness: “The question is not what you should have done, but what you do now.” Indeed, that is the essential theme of “A War.”
The film, then, is less about combat than it is about the ramifications of combat.
For Lindholm, it’s another sturdy effort about individuals on the front lines of world violence. (He also co-wrote 2012’s “The Hunt.”)
Interestingly, in both “A War” and 2012’s “A Hijacking,” the director uses non-actors in many key roles. Perhaps this is why both films feel so authentic. Outside of the courtroom elements, there is no Hollywood-izing in “A War.”
It’s a film sure to inspire discussion.
3 stars (out of four)
Starring: Pilou Asbaek, Tuva Novotny, Dar Salim, Dulfi Al-Jabouri
Director: Tobias Lindholm
Running time: 115 minutes
Rating: R for language and some war-related images
The lowdown: Danish soldiers are caught in heavy crossfire during a routine mission in Afghanistan, and the company commander must make a decision that has grave consequences.
Story topics: movie reviews