Samuel Maoz has made a brilliant film in Lebanon, unless you are in the mood for a happy ending, feel-good confirmation that all is well. Leaving Lebanon, the viewer is not happily humming the theme song, but hearing echoes of the insistent, chaotic noise of war.
Lebanon follows one Israeli tank during the first day and night of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
The best movies tell their stories and make their points visually, and Samuel Maoz demonstrates in Lebanon that he knows not only this principle, but enough art history to enrich his choices. Maoz evokes Dante and alludes to Bunuel and Eisenstein, among other filmmakers.
All but the first and last of the exterior scenes are viewed through the gunsight, a brilliant cinematic device that some reviewers find too contrived or artificial. But art is inherently artificial, which is why we call it art. For some reason, many people demand that war films be utterly “realistic,” mistaking stylistic verisimilitude and explosions for truth telling. Lebanon has plenty of gritty realism, in fact is rooted in gritty realism, but does not stop there.
The gunsight frames individual scenes, both vignettes (an exhausted soldier, a dead civilian slumped over a chess board) and emblematic events, such as gunmen terrorizing a family. Maoz mixes painterly frames with jarring camera movement.
The gunsight is a brilliant device in part because it continually reminds us that we are not personally engaged. It reminds us that our view is limited, distanced, fragmented, and largely under the control of someone else (the gunner, who traverses the sight whether we want him to or not). Seeing the war through a gunsight arguably reminds some of us that in our role as citizens, voters, and taxpayers that we too are behind the sights.
Many of those gunsight scenes are like tableaux, quite a few evoking Goya’s Disasters of War or Picasso, especially Guernica. These scenes provide the film viewer, like the gunner, an artful distance without losing emotion. Like the gunner, we fell compelled to watch, aware that our vision is limited and obscured.
The family being threatened by terrorists is in pajamas, emphasizing their domesticity and vulnerability. The Israeli gunsight’s crosshairs move spasmodically, fixing now on the terrorist and now on the hostage, a neat enough visual demonstration of the difficulties of trying to kill an enemy without killing civilians.
Most of the film is shot inside the tank, increasingly filthy and claustrophobic, and breaking down as inexorably as the tankers themselves. The interiors often evoke Carravagio, and perhaps even Francis Bacon when the tank convulses. One of any art’s glories, of course, is that shock of allusive recognition, even a vague and unexamined sense of continuity between the art that is before us immediately and the art we have already experienced.
Every viewer recognition, however subliminal, that Maoz and Goya have been in the same bloody alleys, or that Bosch and Maoz have seen the same murderous captors, moves us out of one nameless Lebanese town in 1982 and into that larger pattern-hunting and synthesis that allow greater understandings of general truths.
Yes, Lebanon can be painful to watch. Some people outside the tank look at the gunsight, making eye contact with the viewer without the artificiality that gesture usually brings. When, moments after hysterically seeking her missing child, half naked and fully terrified, the Lebanese mother calmly walks up to the gunsight and peers in, she is looking at us. Her steadfast gaze is a challenge and a recrimination. I believe that we are meant to feel guilty and ashamed.
War films are inherently political, no matter what directors say. Lebanon is an anti-war film because it shows the suffering and terrors of war without any redeeming message about compensatory political imperatives, without any moments of personal glory, and without any delusions about soldiers being able to come back whole.
Beyond this general observation about war, Lebanon seems also to comment implicitly on the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. To the extent that on one level the tank symbolizes Israel, as I think it does, the film suggests that the invasion was confused, inadequately coordinated, little understood by Israeli soldiers, and doomed to failure in a civil war complicated by foreigners.
I have long felt that returning soldiers should be greeted by their communities not with brass bands and patriotic parades, but with apologies for having sent them (or for having to send them), with expressions of support and understanding, and a pledge not to mock their experiences with meretricious pop culture celebrations of a delusive warrior culture paradigm.
The tankers in Lebanon deserve that proper reception when they return, as does the Syrian prisoner. Viewers who enjoy the idea of a warrior culture will find their own hero in the Christian Phalangist, although the rest of us will see him as a psychopathic war criminal, and recall encountering him before in a Bosch painting.
One masterful scene in Lebanon might be overlooked, but demonstrates Maoz’s painterly technique and ability to revivify archetypal moments that have atrophied into cliche: a Syrian prisoner, immobilized by chains, says that he has to urinate. One of the Israel tankers opens the ammunition box that the crew has been urinating into, and tries to figure out a solution to this problem. In a lengthy medium shot, we see the two men’s heads and upper torsos.
We understand but do not see that the Israeli unbuttons and pulls down the Syrian’s trousers, and holds his penis over the ammunition box. We hear the Syrian’s long stream as the two men, squeamed and embarrassed, try to not look at each other. Even as they try to appear affectless, their facial expressions change brilliantly within that narrow range. Their embarrassment is profound, and probably inherently comic, although no one in the theatre laughed when I saw this film. When the Syrian is finished, the Israeli pulls his pants back up and neither man acknowledges what has happened.
This might be the single most brilliant cinematic example of making new a war film cliché, the momentary suggestion of the brotherhood of man between enemies. Maoz manages this without any of the usual sentimentality, self-congratulations for magnanimity, or agitprop insistence on an idealized international brotherhood.
Lebanon employs many brilliant, small visual suggestions of theme. The tank’s gauges begin to fail, increasingly denying the driver (like the viewer) a tool of understanding. The gunsight itself cracks, further limiting our vision. A small teasing pinup photo sets us up for the vulnerable nakedness of the mother seeking her child. Yes, some of the details are contrived, like the painting of the Madonna and child, but even such contrivances enrich the film. See what Maoz does with an unseen helicopter hovering over the tank.
Lebanon will probably not appeal to many viewers. With good reason the film industry believes that we attend movies to avoid reality for a while, to fantasize being people we are not, and to escape the banality of our lives and the betrayals of aging. A wise person, perhaps Richard Walter, once wrote that commercial films are about the fantasy lives of the audience. Dale Carnegie always said that the way to make money is to tell people what they want to hear.
That appeal to our need for comfort and fantasy is certainly very true of commercial feature films. For an hour or two we viewers can vicariously be handsome or beautiful, courageous, heroic, and successful, even if sitting in a theater and eating bad popcorn actually just makes us older, fatter and deafer.
Like commercial film, some great art is exalting, uplifting, triumphant or reassuring. Bach comes to mind first, of course. On the other hand, unlike commercial art, some great art is demanding, destabilizing, rude, humbling, and discomforting. Rather than tell us what we want to hear, such art challenges our delusional self-assurances, at least for a while. Lebanon can be difficult to watch, as all good war films are, but this film wholly rewards us for facing unpleasantries as only very good art can.