Watching Lebanon, the powerful, disturbing Israeli film, I kept thinking of the river scenes in Apocalypse Now. In both movies, wary young soldiers make their way through hostile territory, and the tension is agonizing. The difference: At least the men in Apocalypse Now have a little room on their boat to stretch out. Virtually all of Lebanon takes place in the cramped interior of an Israeli tank. The 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon is in its opening hours, and the tank's four crew members are on what seems a straightforward mission.
Writer and director Samuel Moaz served with the Israeli army in the Lebanon war, and he begins an essay in the film's press notes this way: "On June 6, 1982, at 6:15 a.m., I killed a man for the first time in my life." With this film, which draws on his experiences, he strikes a similar note of plainspoken horror - horror at the carnage of war, and at the toll it takes on the young people who fight.
The tank's dank interior is a remarkable cinematic creation. It is smoky and dirty, and fluids ooze from the walls. Nasty, oily liquid sloshes around on the floor, and when the tank is struck by a missile, this stuff coats every surface, including the men's faces. When we see the war unfold outside, it's through the tank's periscope, which makes a grinding sound as it moves from obscenity to obscenity: bodies missing limbs, a woman on fire. Sometimes people look straight into the lens, and the effect is eerie.
The crew members meet for the first time at the beginning of the film. Over its brief, 93-minute running time, we watch them collapse in fright. The gunner (Yoav Donat) can't shoot. The commander (Itay Tiran) can't command. The driver (Michael Moshonov) can't start the tank. Periodically a briskly efficient major (Zohar Strauss) comes through the hatch to bark commands. He's not the only one who drops in. At one point the bloody corpse of an Israeli soldier is lowered in, and there's a harrowing moment when the crew members frantically struggle to have the body lifted away by a helicopter.
For better or worse, Moaz doesn't focus on the significance of the Lebanon war - neither its proximate cause nor its aftermath. The political dynamics are hinted at only in brief, ambiguous moments.
In this regard, Lebanon resembles recent American films about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, like The Hurt Locker and The Messenger - compelling dramas focused so tightly on their characters that politics slips away. All these films share a theme: War is devastating. But everybody knows that already. What's missing from them is any broader perspective on the wars - what they might mean, and what we might make of the people responsible. For all its crazy chaos, Apocalypse Now did give us some perspective.