The war of the title is, in part, the war in Afghanistan, where a young commander makes a split-second decision under a hail of gunfire that puts his life under a moral microscope.
But wars have many battlegrounds, not just the obvious ones. There’s the war in the courtroom that follows; the war at home, where children struggle with the absence of their father; the war in one’s self as a crisis of conscience wages.
Claus (Pilou Asbaek) is a soldier on all these battlefields. A Danish commander in Afghanistan, he along with his men is stressed by toeing the fine line between fighting the Taliban and making nice with the locals. One day, they’re sniping bad guys with explosives; the next, teaching kids how to fly a kite.
They’re further rattled when a young soldier is killed and his legs blown off (gruesomely, on screen) by an I.E.D. Claus proves himself a smart, empathetic commander, thoughtfully considering decisions in harrowing situations. When a soldier breaks down with the trauma of what he witnessed, Claus turns therapist and friend, and finds a sympathetic solution.
At home, his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) struggles to maintain order among their three children as their oldest boy lashes out in increasingly destructive ways. The family is strained, tenuously held together by the odd, infrequent minutes they can find to talk on the phone with Claus.
The battle within himself begins the moment Claus is forced to make a life-and-death decision under fire. It’s the sort of decision soldiers are forced to make every day, but one that explodes, like that I.E.D., with unintended consequences, scattering Claus’ conscience with shrapnel. Back home in Denmark, that decision is met with a reckoning, requiring a new one under different pressures. “The issue is not what you should have done,” he is told, “but what you do now.”
The craftsmanship of “A War” is unimpeachable. Tight shots and jittery camera work give the film an immediate, intimate feel. You can feel the bullets whizzing past in Afghanistan; you get sick with tension when Claus’ eldest son bucks authority; you can hear every click and pen scratch in the unforgiving light of the courtroom.
But fine craftsmanship alone does not tell a story, and the narrative is restrained at times to the point of listlessness. An eventful and engaging (if predictable) first half sets the stage for a second half of pensive ambiguity as Claus struggles inwardly with unseen consequences. The viewer is given only brief glimpses into his inner life from a cold remove: the crease of his brow, a tense pause, the long pull of a cigarette.
It’s ambiguity without engagement, art you can admire but not feel.
Magnolia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Tobias Lindholm. In Danish with English subtitles. Running time: 115 minutes. Rated R (for language and some war-related images). Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre.