Lebanon (2010)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on September 5, 2010 @ tonymacklin.net.

The first hour of Lebanon is some of the most excruciating footage you will ever see in a movie theater.

It's a punishing, disturbing experience. Samuel Maoz, the writer/director of Lebanon, was a tank gunner in the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. More than 25 years later he has created a movie set in a tank during a day and night of that assault.

It's bright and lethal outside. Shafts of light penetrate the clanking, iron, potential tomb inside.

After about an hour of blood-sodden brutality, Maoz takes his foot off the accelerator -- and the audience's throat -- and the latter part of his movie becomes a fairly standard war movie. The foxhole genre in a tank.

But until then, Maoz takes us to the abyss and has us look down into the chaotic inhumanity and despair of war.

I must admit I was relieved when the movie became less brutal, but I also knew then it had lost some of its authenticity. Up until then, it was appalling -- anything gruesome seemed possible. But it becomes more an action movie than the unforgettable experience it had been.

As Lebanon winds down, it shifts its gears. It introduces one sequence of sudden humanity by a soldier to his enemy.

And it has a moment of contrived sentimentality when we find out a mother has gotten a message from her son in the tank. It's patented irony, too. [Lifetime movies visit the tank.] I wish Maoz had edited that out. Sentimentality did not fit in that tank's confines.

And Lebanon's final image, set in a wafting breeze, is comparatively upbeat. I didn't want Lebanon to deliver on its essential vision, but I think that I feel cheated that it didn't.

Lebanon is the story of four Israeli soldiers encased in a tank. They see outside through a telescopic gun sight equipped with night vision. The world they see is one of cruelty and carnage. They themselves inflict some.

The four young soldiers are not prepared for what they encounter. How could they be?

The inexperienced quartet is made up of a novice tank commander Assi (Itay Tran), the tank's gunner Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the ammunition loader Hertzel (Oshri Cohen), and the driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov). They bicker and squabble like a dysfunctional, marooned family.

Inside the tank is a mess -- cigarette butts, crumpled soda cans, and spent shell casings float on the floor in a liquid mix of oil and urine. Assi tries to reclaim civilization in the tank by shaving, but it's a forlorn act.

On occasion a veteran area commander Jamil (Zohar Strauss) drops into the tank to give orders and try to shape up the dismal crew.

An Israeli corpse is put in the tank for protection until it can be airlifted away. A beaten Syrian prisoner is chained in the tank. None of the Israelis speak Arabic. A Christian Philangist comes into the tank, and he smilingly promises the prisoner unspeakable torture, while the crew thinks he is calming the Syrian.

No one is innocent. The Israelis are breaking the rules of combat, the Arabs are terrorizing, and the Christian Philangist is a thug.

Despite its more commercial last section, for much of its length, Lebanon is a biting, clanking ride through Hell.

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