War is hell, as the saying goes, but in Danish director Tobias Lindholm’s “A War,” playing this weekend at PMA Movies, that hell is all the more terrifying for how mundane it is. Lindholm, as he did in his excellent Somali pirate drama “A Hijacking,” resolutely refuses to add bombast to his tale of a commanding officer tried for civilian deaths, forgoing music, big speeches, or flashy heroics. The result is that both the violence and the human drama, when they come, emerge all the more powerfully. If there’s a moral to be taken from “A War,” it’s that, when war is your daily life, often there are no right decisions.
In the film (nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar last year), Lindholm regular Pilou Asbæk plays Claus Pedersen, the dedicated commander of a group of Danish troops deployed against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Shown from the outset as a decent, caring man, Claus shepherds his young charges through long days of constant danger as they patrol the countryside, attempting to protect a civilian population from an enemy they can’t find, and dogged by the constant threat of explosive devices planted seemingly everywhere. When one of his men, traumatized by the death of a comrade, says “This doesn’t make any sense,” Claus’ response that their presence allows the Afghan people to have a life and to rebuild a country shattered by constant violence emerges not like Lindholm (also the film’s writer) laying out political arguments as much as real people applying logic to an untenable situation.
And it is untenable, as the film’s pivotal combat sequence shows in chilling detail. Setting out to assist a village targeted by the Taliban, Claus’ squad is pinned down by a surprise attack, and one man grievously wounded. Calling for air support, the officer is confronted with a choice. He makes it with the best of intentions and, as a result, eleven people die, many of them children. Shipped back to Denmark to face trial, he’s reunited with his long-suffering wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny) and his three young children. With the help of his cynical attorney, Claus must defend himself against a prosecutor (a restrainedly excellent Charlotte Munck) whose hard line that a difficult situation cannot excuse the choice he made only echoes the conflict within the tortured family man himself.
Lindholm’s approach to this material is so antithetical to traditional war movie vocabulary that it’s likely to appear too evenhanded to some. While the war scenes themselves are shot with a crisp clarity (Lindholm has great command of visual space, making the chaos of the battle scenes strikingly understandable), they’re also shot with a documentarian’s objectivity. In Lindholm’s depiction of war, there’s no need to embellish the fact that death can come in an instant. Unlike the overheated shooting scenes in, say, “American Sniper,” here a marksman lines up his kill with cool professionalism, the detail of him steadying himself with a little humming sound the only hint of the man behind the rifle. The courtroom scenes play out in a nondescript conference room, any thoughts of “A Few Good Men”-style surprise witnesses or “You can’t handle the truth!” histrionics so muffled by the everyday that when “A War”‘s versions of both do arrive, they play out almost apologetically.
Everyone’s arguments are given equal weight. The prosecutor’s stance that international laws against indiscriminately endangering civilians isn’t dismissed as the bookish abstractions of people who don’t understand the reality of war, but neither is her zeal in wanting to sentence remorseful family man Claus to four years in prison easy to root for. Maria’s passionate appeal to her husband to say whatever is necessary to keep him out of jail is neither villainous nor laudable – it’s just the best choice she can pluck out of the mess threatening her family.
As for Claus, Asbæk, with his trimmed beard and soft eyes (he looks like Ewan McGregor in the “Star Wars” prequels) embodies all these contradictions with a subdued performance all the more affecting for how little he and Lindholm have him make the expected speeches about what he’s done, or how he feels about it. When the trial is over, and everyone’s had their say, Claus is left alone, smoking a cigarette and contemplating the night sky of his home country. If, the film posits, there’s truth to be found amidst the chaos of a war, you handle it the best you can. And live with it.
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
WHERE: Portland Museum of Art, Congress Square, Portland
HOW MUCH: $8, $6 for members and students with ID.
NOTE: The film is rated R for language and some scenes of intense war violence.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
RAILROAD SQUARE CINEMA in Waterville
Thursday: “Hello, My Name Is Doris.” Co-written and directed by certified hilarious person Michael Showalter (“Wet Hot American Summer,” “The Baxter”), this story of a 60-ish single woman (Sally Field) falling for the much younger new guy at work (“New Girl’s” Max Greenfield) is a deceptively smart and sensitive (and funny) look at an improbable relationship.
FRONTIER in Brunswick
Tuesday: “45 Years.” An elderly couple (never-better pros Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling) find their seemingly happy marriage thrown into turmoil when the husband receives an unexpected letter. A study of love and regret, and a mystery as enigmatic as it is restrained. Rampling is riveting.