Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm has carved out for himself a particular niche of subject matter. Much like his previous features R (co-directed with Michael Noer), set in a prison, and A Hijacking, which was set on a shipping vessel beset by Somali pirates, his third feature, the Oscar-nominated A War, examines the actions of men in pressure-cooker situations, often in close, confined quarters. Lindholm, employing a realistic, almost documentarylike style, explores with close attention the moral consequences of the choices these men make, for themselves and others in their lives.
A War broadens the canvas of Lindholm’s inquiries to encompass one of the major conflicts of our time: the war in Afghanistan. Lindstrom has stated in an interview: “It has defined my generation, more than anything else, that we have sent young men to wars that haven’t been about defending Denmark’s borders but are based on a more abstract political choice.” This idea deeply informs his film. Danish soldiers are sent on dangerous patrols through territories full of Taliban warriors lying in wait, leading them to question what they are doing there. The “abstract political choices” Lindholm speaks of result in death and destruction, which, of course, is anything but abstract.
The central character is Claus Pedersen (Lindholm regular Pilou Asbaek), the commanding officer of a Danish company stationed in an Afghan province that is repeatedly threatened and terrorized by Taliban fighters. His essential decency and goodness is stressed repeatedly. Early on, the company is thrown in to turmoil when a soldier steps on a hidden IED (improvised explosive device), killing him and seriously threatening the morale of the company. Lasse (Dulfi Al-Jabouri) saw the soldier hit by the bomb die in front of him, and he nearly has a nervous breakdown. Claus consoles Lasse and later on goes on patrols with the men, though he doesn’t have to, to show his solidarity with the men.
Meanwhile, back in Denmark, Claus’s wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny), struggles to care for their three young children in Claus’s absence, which proves to be a difficult job. Their eldest child, in particular, has an especially hard time adjusting, acting out at home and getting into fights at school.
The film’s crucial turning point occurs when Claus and his men are caught in a firefight with Taliban soldiers, during which Lasse becomes gravely wounded and requires a helicopter to airlift him out. During this battle, Claus makes a fateful decision to call in an airstrike to save his men. However, this causes Claus to be sent back home to face trial for a war crime.
Thereafter, A War morphs into a courtroom drama, one which hinges on Claus’s reasoning for calling in the airstrike, specifically on whether Claus has been truthful about his rationale for making that decision. To his great credit, Lindstrom makes sure that this question is unambiguous. The issues instead centers on what Claus will do during the trial, given that we in the audience know what he did.
Tobias Lindstrom has, with A War, created his finest film to date, one which expands on the visual acuity and thematic thoughtfulness he has firmly established in his previous work. Lindstrom also continues his commitment to realism by employing, in supporting roles, nonprofessional actors who have been involved in the Afghan war in real life, including Danish soldiers, Afghan refugees, and even a former Taliban warrior. This sense of realism feels deeply embedded and lends a bracing immediacy to nearly every scene set on the battlefield.
Pilou Asbaek delivers yet another impressive, commanding performance, vividly conveying all the complicated moral shadings to Claus. The cast is great all around, especially Tuva Novotny as the wife and mother and Soren Malling, another Lindstrom regular, as Claus’s lawyer.