Navigating A Minefield Of Moral Quandaries And Consequences In 'A War'

Feb 12, 2016
Originally published on February 15, 2016 5:13 pm

The Danish entry in the foreign language Oscar sweepstakes, A War, begins in Afghanistan, deep in Taliban territory. A Danish patrol is walking single file across a field. Each man steps where the previous man stepped ... alas, to no avail. A land mine explodes, killing the baby-faced last soldier in the line.

Back at the squad's fortified HQ, Claus, their 30-something commanding officer, decides he will not send his men out again without being there himself, a decision that will later have repercussions. He's a decent man — a father, a caring officer, proud of the role his soldiers play in protecting civilians. This war, though, turns such considerations on their heads. Help an Afghan family, and the Taliban is apt to target that family, which is how Claus later finds himself with his squad in an ambush.

One of his men — a soldier who was traumatized in the first incident to the point that Claus almost had to send him home — is hit and will die without assistance. The rest are pinned down, unable to tell where shots are coming from. Claus calls in an airstrike on a nearby compound, not quite sure that that's where the shots are coming from, but it turns out he was right. His action saves his men.

But a few days later, he is called in for an inquiry. There were civilians in the compound, too. After a debriefing, he is sent back to his wife and kids in Copenhagen, charged with war crimes. And the complications are just beginning.

The first half of A War was shot in Turkey, and nearly all the roles in that war-zone setting were cast with nonactors — Afghan refugees, Danish ex-soldiers — which helped filmmaker Tobias Lindholm achieve a documentary-like realism there. In the scenes at Claus' home and in the courtroom, the director relies more on leading man Pilou Asbaek, who has a solemn, brooding manner that is likely to serve him well in a substantial role he has landed in the coming season of Game of Thrones.

Lindholm has said in interviews that just as films about the Vietnam War gave the American public a way to process a national trauma, he hopes his film can do that for a Danish public that has been sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan for much of the past decade and a half. And indeed, he has freighted A War with many of the same moral quandaries, impossible choices, terrible consequences.

In Afghanistan, Claus' soldiers are tense, their foothold insecure, the civilians they're protecting anxious. He returns to find his home tense, his children insecure, his wife anxious. If what he did in the war zone to save his men was criminal, what should he do at home?

In the courtroom, with his attorney staring down the prosecutor, the battle lines seem so clear. In his own mind, they're less clear. What do you do when there's no right move? A War brings that question home.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

War movies often build to a big battlefield confrontation. The new movie "A War" is a little different. Critic Bob Mondello says this foreign film Oscar nominee from Denmark does begin as a battlefield epic, but it ends as a courtroom drama.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Afghanistan, deep in Taliban territory, a Danish patrol is walking single file across a field, each man stepping where the previous man stepped - alas, to no avail.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

MONDELLO: Back at headquarters, Claus, the patrol's young commanding officer, decides he'll not send his men out again without being there himself. He's a decent man - a father, a caring officer, proud of the role his soldiers play in protecting civilians. Though, this war turns such considerations on their heads. Help a family, and the Taliban targets that family, which is how Claus later finds himself with his squad in an ambush.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

MONDELLO: One of his men is hit and will die without assistance. The rest are pinned down, unable to tell where shots are coming from. Claus calls in an airstrike on a nearby compound. And it turns out he's right, that's where the shots were coming from. His actions save his men.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

MONDELLO: But a few days later, he's called in for an inquiry. There were civilians in the compound, too. He's being sent back to his wife and kids in Copenhagen, charged with war crimes. And the complications are just beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A WAR")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As character, speaking Danish).

MONDELLO: The first half of the film was shot in Turkey, and nearly all the roles in that war-zone setting were cast with nonactors - Afghan refugees, Danish ex-soldiers - which helped filmmaker Tobias Lindholm achieve a documentary-like realism there. In the home scenes and the courtroom, he relies more on his leading man, Pilou Asbaek, who has a solemn, brooding manner that's likely to serve him well in a substantial role he's landed in the coming season of "Game Of Thrones." Filmmaker Lindholm has said in interviews that just as films about the Vietnam War gave the American public a way to process a national trauma, he's hoping his film can do that for a Danish public that has been sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan for much of the last decade-and-a-half. And "A War" is freighted with many of the same moral quandaries, impossible choices, terrible consequences. In Afghanistan, Claus's soldiers are tense, their foothold insecure, the civilians they're protecting anxious. He returns to find his home tense, his children insecure, his wife anxious. If what he did in the war zone to save his men was criminal, what should he do at home? In the courtroom, with his attorney staring down the prosecutor -

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A WAR")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character, speaking Danish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (As character, speaking Danish).

MONDELLO: The battle lines seem so clear. In his own mind, they're less clear. What do you do when there's no right move? "A War" brings that question home. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.