Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon is an intense, claustrophobic drama that takes place during the Lebanon War in 1982. What sets this apart from other war films though is that the entire film is set in and around a tank where most of what is seen and heard is experienced from inside the iron monstrosity. There are not that many characters, but the story is not in need of more than these, nor would it be able to contain much more.
The story revolves around the four main characters inside the tank. There is the commander, a gunner, a shell-loader, and the driver. Everything they know of the outside world during this film is either seen through a targeting scope or heard through a telephone from their commanding officer. Their mission seems fairly simple at first. They are to block a road until their departure for a town, which they are to simply drive through, but it doesn’t go as smoothly as they thought it would.
Things start going wrong as tensions in the tank become higher and higher. The gunner finds he can’t shoot a car as it speeds down the road toward the tank, while the next car he blows up without even thinking. The four men are constantly on edge with very little sleep as shown when they are given about 30 minutes for a nap while arguing about who will keep watch for this small amount of time.
Their situation becomes even worse as they try to cross through the city, but end up in the middle of a squad of enemy Syrians, some of whom are holding hostages. This leads to another troubling situation for the gunner. Now, having taken on a prisoner and having been hit by a RPG, they must find a way out of this hostile territory with their sluggish tank before the enemy finds them.
It’s amazing how much tension can be built up in such a small space. I was reminded of other films that used such tactics to great effect like 12 Angry Men or Rear Window. Here, we have four men crammed in a tight space who have obviously been at this awhile. Their nerves are frayed and they certainly don’t want to be there. One of them is even ready to be discharged in two weeks, but is told that that has been changed until further notice.
How would people react in such a situation? Well, they would probably snap at each other like these men do several times throughout the film. The commander gives orders that are continually questioned do to everyone being in shock at the horror happening around them. On top of all this, they have a prisoner that they can’t even communicate with because he speaks a different dialect of Arabic than the one they learned in school.
Two other characters come in and out of the tank, including their commanding officer who keeps urging them on even when the tank seems broken. The other is someone who is supposed to lead them safely out of the city, but before he does that, he has a shocking scene where he describes to the prisoner exactly what is going to happen to him when he is turned over for torture.
Adding to the feeling of claustrophobia is the environment of the tank itself. It is a disgusting cesspool of mysterious liquid covering the floor and walls that includes oil, water, and probably urine. Trash also litters the floor in the form of empty cans and cigarette butts that float in the grimy liquid. Their one supply of food comes in the form of a bag filled with soup croutons that scatter all over the walls and floor after being hit by the RPG. The men themselves look like they’ve been soaking in this filth for quite some time.
The film does have some slow spots but is able to pull you right back in with great moments of intensity. It took home the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last year where it sits alongside such great films as Rashomon, The Battle of Algiers, and Au revoir, les enfants. It is just now getting a release in the states and is well-worth checking out if you get the chance. 3/4 stars.
Now playing in a limited release (23 theaters).
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