“A War,” the Oscar-nominated film by the Danish director Tobias Lindholm, has the craft and narrative control of an exceptionally successful episode of “Law and Order.” It’s a courtroom drama that progresses with logic, but it also has a blandness that seems out of step with the intensity of its subject.
The film is about Claus (Pilou Asbæk), a military commander in Afghanistan. Nearing the end of his tour, he is involved in an incident that gets him penalized. From here we see Claus and his family confront the prospect of prison, and then watch the trial unfold.
Back in Denmark, Claus’ wife Maria, played by Tuva Novotny, does her best to raise their children, who miss their father deeply. These scenes drag on, and Maria is never developed beyond being a housewife.
When Claus is on trial, a shortcoming in Asbæk’s acting emerges. At war, he plays Claus as an incredibly stoic, resolute commander, which fits the character’s background. But later on, as Claus faces the judgment of trial, this stoicism remains, which feels out of place. This choice comes off as aloofness, all at the expense of character development.
The structure of the trial is built to manufacture suspense with each witness, a plot device used in typical courtroom dramas. This is slightly contrived, but no more so than a typical courtroom drama. As in a good procedural, one finds oneself pulled in despite being aware of an artificially manipulated plot. There is a sense of catharsis when the verdict is read.
The early battle scenes are well-executed. However, what the battle scenes lack is bias. The film lacks a definite stance, leaving the moral message murky. The soldiers are shown committing actions both helpful and harmful to the local population.
There is a good sense of the way military life is full of down time between stretches of combat. The big set piece battle scenes are legitimately unsettling. The camera stays very close to the characters to show how overwhelmed and confused the soldiers are, which becomes vital to the plot. The sound editing is equally skillful, with layers of gunfire drowning out the characters yells.
For all the craft of “A War”, there is nothing very original about it. The sort of moral questions raised as Claus faces trial are extremely common. But what the film lacks in originality, it makes up for in stunning battle sequences.
Email Tony Schwab at [email protected]