The one-line pitch for this claustrophobic little war movie runs ‘Das Boot in a tank’, and for once that’s pretty damn accurate. Based on writer-director Samuel Maoz’s experiences, it’s set during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, (as seen in Waltz with Bashir) and we the audience are trapped with an ill-prepared and uneasy crew of four inside an armoured mobile box. We only know what they know, which is precious little, only see what they can see through their sights, which isn’t much, and apart from the opening and closing shots of the film, we are very much inside the tank for the tight 92-minute running time. The crew start the film barely functional, but as tension mounts and tempers fray the chain of command dissolves completely. The captain loses his marbles, the gunner won’t shoot, and the driver doesn’t want the tank to drive anywhere but home. The mission goes badly off course, victims mount, unwelcome guests are received and everything falls apart…
As with the ‘war is hell’ sub-genre in general, the focus is on the experience of combat rather than a cohesive view of the rights and wrongs of the conflict itself. As in Waltz with Bashir, the blame for the true evil, the atrocities, is shifted onto the shifty, brutal Christian Falangists, with the Israeli forces mostly represented as misled and misguided, a bunch of poor bastards in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m sure many Lebanese will find much to disagree with in this, but to its credit Lebanon does show the Israelis firing upon the guilty and the innocent, and the film does not flinch from the traumas inflicted upon the population. At least, Maoz isn’t peddling some horseshit that the greatest casualty of war is innocence. How many American Vietnam war movies even considered the point of view of the Vietnamese?
It’s as a sensual experience that Lebanon is at its strongest. As the film progresses, the men’s sweat begins to drip and pool on the tank’s floor, thick with muck, dog-ends and soup croutons (don’t ask). The air fills with smoke, and oil and mystery crud accumulates on the faces of the cast. You can almost feel the heat, and definitely feel glad you can’t smell the action. Be glad it isn’t in 3D at your local IMAX, the full sensurround experience would require cinemas to lay on shower facilities. This all adds greatly to the mounting unease, as the reluctant crew becomes drawn into literally and morally murkier and murkier territory, and their culpability in the torture, slaughter and destruction surrounding them becomes clear. Lebanon is not earth-shatteringly original, it’s heavy-handed in places, and a little clichéd, but it feels authentic: grimy, stinky, delirious and chaotic. It works.