Like his 2012 film “A Hijacking,” Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm’s drama “A War” explores the theme of moral compromise with an uncomfortably astringent honesty.
Set in a remote military outpost in Afghanistan, the Academy Award-nominated film revolves around the commander of a unit of Danish soldiers who, after issuing an order that results in unintended collateral damage, finds himself caught in a three-way dilemma of duty: to his own men; to the Afghan civilians whose hearts and minds he’s there to win; and to his family back home. There is no way that Claus (Pilou Asbaek) can square away all three, and Lindholm recognizes this, with a story whose resolution echoes with the tinny, off-key music of concession.
It’s a beautiful, haunting reverberation that stays with you long after you have left the theater.
Asbaek – so great in “A Hijacking,” where he played a lowly cook on a ship hijacked by Somali pirates, a nobody stuck in a vise between his desperate captors and his cynical, cost-conscious employers back home – is one of three professional actors in the Afghanistan scenes. The majority of Claus’ troops and the Afghan villagers are played by real Danish army veterans and Afghan victims of Taliban crimes.
This lends a documentary-like feel to first half of the film, which toggles between tense monotony and explosive, often bloody violence. It’s in stark contrast to the court-martial that dominates the second half of “A War,” after Claus is brought home to face charges of committing a war crime.
Both of these sections are intercut with the everyday domestic drama that plays out between Claus and his wife (Tuva Novotny) and their three children, initially over satellite phone and later face to face.
Claus is not a bad man, but he may have done a bad thing. The question here: How does one reconcile one’s obligation to a literal truth – made no less true by the mitigating fog of war – with the obligation to a second, implicit truth, that an admission of guilt would deprive his family of the father they need? And which of these competing truths is the greater one, the one less likely to eat away, like a slowly corrosive solvent, at one’s soul?
Lindholm sets up this endgame meticulously, moving the players in his drama into position with the inexorable logic of chess pieces that have been pushed, one tiny move at a time, toward a showdown.
Asbaek makes for an intensely likeable protagonist, one for whom the audience will naturally root to prevail in a court of law. That “A War” both delivers the results one might wish for and denies a sense of closure is not a failing but its chief virtue. The sense of a draw it leaves us with – neither the agony of defeat nor the thrill of victory, except perhaps a pyrrhic one – is, Lindholm argues, the true cost of war.
Three and a half stars. Rated R. Contains coarse language and violent, bloody battle scenes. In Danish, Pashto and English with subtitles. 115 minutes.