At first, A War -- the Danish nominee for a best foreign-language film Oscar -- seems to be locked into a familiar template. Vivid combat sequences are juxtaposed with scenes from the homefront. Solid in their camaraderie, soldiers endure harrowing dangers of the battlefield; those at home struggle to keep families on an even keel.
Skillfully directed as these scenes are, it's difficult not to think we know precisely where the movie is headed.
But director Tobias Lindholm has something more complex and challenging in mind than many contemporary war movies have attempted. He wants to raise the moral stakes so that we're asked, perhaps even compelled, to evaluate what transpires in Afghanistan and later in Denmark.
Along the way, we realize that it's nearly impossible to reach an entirely acceptable conclusion about the events that we've been watching. Everything we've seen results from fighting a war filled with inherently ambiguous situations in which civilians and enemies aren't always easily differentiated.
Lindholm's story focuses on Claus Pederson (Pilou Asbaek), a leader who's trying to understand all aspects of the situation in which he and his men find themselves. It doesn't take long before the heat of battle puts the clearly decent Pederson in a compromising position. He makes a decision on the fly, and it backfires. Eleven Afghan civilians die as the result of an artillery strike Pederson orders so that he can save the life of one of his men.
To the movie's credit, Pederson is no war addicted officer, a la the character played by Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker. He's a stable, thoughtful military man who'd rather be home with his wife (Tuva Novotny) and children, but he's also devoted to his men. Asbaek's performance makes this conflict clear and intensifies it as the story progresses.
The movie eventually forces Pederson to make more difficult choices, ensuring that A War gets under the skin and stays there.
At times, it almost feels as if we're watching a documentary, which only serves to make the experience of A War more wrenchingly real, and, by the end, you may conclude that there's something deeply troubling about putting people into combat situations in which few good choices can be found.
Credit Lindholm with bravely refusing to let us off the hook; it's impossible to see this movie without examining not only the consciences of the characters, but our own. Deeply troubling and appropriately ambiguous A War is a fine and sobering movie.