AFI Fest Movie Review: ‘A WAR’ Will Leave Audiences Shell-shocked

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

A WAR |  115 min   | NR
Directed by: Tobias Lindholm
Starring: Pilou AsbækTuva NovotnyDar Salim, Søren Malling

As is the case during times of war, filmmakers react with their interpretations of wartime crisis. America has long been the predominant voice when it comes to the genre with films like AMERICAN SNIPER and MAX making their mark over these past few years. However, over this same timespan, foreigners are taking a stab at it with films like director Michel Hazanavicius THE SEARCH and now director Tobias Lindholm’s A WAR. The part-action, part-courtroom drama takes a unique perspective, showing how other countries handle the consequences of war politics. Nevertheless, while this is extremely universal in its message, it’s very much a re-tread of topics covered at great length in previous films.

Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk, the Danish Joshua Jackson, in a career defining performance) is a commanding officer stationed far away from home in an Afghan province. Danger is everywhere as demonstrated by a mission that renders one of his company dead. There’s typically no room “in the shit” for compassion, but Claus has that in spades, finding a solution to his soldier Lasse Hassan’s (Dulfi Al-Jabouri) compromised mental condition. Meanwhile, back in Denmark, Claus’ harried wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) is struggling to hold it together. She’s a temporary single parent to their three young kids – one of whom is currently acting out. Whilst out on a routine mission to check on a local family who’ve recently been harassed by the Taliban, the troops find themselves locked in heavy gunfire with local insurgent forces. Claus is forced to make a decision – one that puts him (and his family) into hot water.

Narratively, A WAR doesn’t conquer any new emotional territory. Sure, it’s hard being a spouse in a military family. Yes, kids act out. Yes, being separated from them is excruciating and they’re forced to make the best of it. But what’s the next level? Is there more to add to this? If so, we’re never shown. Also, in third act it’s questionable why Claus’ defense (Søren Malling) isn’t doing a better job defending his client. It’s distracting and frustrating that his lawyer is not trying to prove that gunfire was coming from Compound Six despite civilians being present.

A WAR 1

Pilou Asbæk stars in A WAR. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The small blessing is that, unlike AMERICAN SNIPER and LONE SURVIVOR, it’s not the least bit jingoistic. Lindholm got that brilliantly correct. The consequences of wartime actions are a facet not commonly shown in American war films, so it’s refreshing to see a foreign film explore that to great effect. These are people asked to weigh tough decisions under extreme pressure. Rather than exclusively showing our hero as, well, a perfect hero, it leads to a deeper, more realistic human storyline. As that grows, an interesting dichotomy ensues: Where was Claus better off – in the fray of the battlefield, or at home fielding shots from a prosecutor?

While this isn’t anything groundbreaking or earth-shattering, there are a handful of aspects that make A WAR something to see – so long as you don’t go out of your way for it.

A WAR plays AFI Fest on November 8 and 9. It opens in limited release February 12, 2016.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.

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