by Richard von Busack
It’s obvious that much of what one sees in Lebanon comes from personal experience. Israeli director Samuel Maoz was wounded in the 1982 Israeli excursion into Lebanon (a piece of history recently treated in Waltz With Bashir).
The problem is that the part that comes from a keen knowledge of cinema techniques—of grabbers and close-ups—is obvious too, and the mixture doesn’t quite mix.
One takes away from his film the sense that tank warfare is an especially filthy way to fight and die. And that’s the mark of a serious statement of a wartime experience: you make the discovery, “this is absolutely not the way I’d want to fight a war,” the same way you did when reading Randall Jarrell’s poem about the ball-turret gunner…or checking the finale of Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road, describing WW1 footsoldiers, in their extremity of exhaustion, deliriously imagining the sun reversing its course. There are times when the Quakers don’t seem all that crazy.
One thing we learn from Lebanon is that tanks, like warships, contain bilgewater: an inch deep of greasy liquid slogging around the feet of the squad. Bits of food, cigarette ends, and occasionally blood adds to it. So does canteen water, when, against orders, the crew douses themselves against the heat. This wastewater adding to some of Maoz’s best effects: a jettisoned cigarette butt disturbing the reflection of a soldiers face; visible vibrations in it as the tank shudders through the city.
The soundscape is part of the ordeal: the audible thunk of lenses changing through the periscope, and the almost klaxon-like din as the turret grinds. The movie is mostly carried out in tight closeup as the operation begins, hours before daylight. The crew of the tank—which is code-named “Rhino”—get lost, away from the rest of their command. After they’re crippled from a direct hit, they’re trapped in the neighborhood a pair of vengeful and unreliable Phalangist Lebanese allies.
The tank’s officer, Assi (Itay Tiran) is showing signs of fracture, just like the rest of Rhino’s green and nerve-wracked crew. We don’t leave the tank’s interior: people (a corpse, an officer, a Syrian prisoner) drop in through the hatch, though. After the wallop of a shell—shown in John Woo slow motion—the cast is sprayed with almost pressurized filth, and the now black masked faces of the crew are even more indistinguishable than they were before.
Getting a nude scene into this kind of film wasn’t easy but Maoz did it. After the tank wastes a terrorist, a civilians’ dress catches on fire and she tears it off herself. The periscope tracks her as she looks for something to cover herself with. I’d accept that gawking a naked woman is exactly what a soldier would do. I’m less comfortable with her scorn and rage as she stares down into the tank’s lens. And the cut from her eyes to a soldier’s eyes makes their experiences equivalent. And that’s the old war-movie lie: having to watch people suffer is as bad as suffering.
There are shockers here. Something terrible that happens to a civilian is like a real life version of the finale of 1932’s Freaks; an the eye of an eviscerated donkey gets a tight closeup (something a cameraman might focus on, but would a soldier?) And there’s a plausible monologue about a boy’s orgasm shortly after the death of his father. Maoz’s uncomfortable way with dialogue, combined with the film’s tunnel-vision, ensures that the lines have the staged sound of a radio play.
It may be good enough that Lebanon is the work of a humane man who doubts the necessity of war. But if there’d been something else manifested here, the imperativeness of De Palma, the punch of the William Friedkin who made Sorcerer, or even more touches of the “black comedy” Maoz says in interviews that he wants to make next…Lebanon would be so powerful it’d almost be unwatchable.