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Yoav Donat, left, & Zohar Strauss in LEBANON (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

Written & Directed by
Samuel Maoz
Produced by
Uri Sabag, Einat Bikel, Moshe Edery, Leon Edery, David Silber, Benjamina Mirnik & Ilann Girard
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Hebrew & Arabic with English subtitles
Israel/France/UK. 95 min. Rated R
Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Strauss & Dudu Tassa  

Israeli filmmakers have recently traced their disillusionment with the country’s military policy by bringing their participation in the wars in Lebanon vividly to the screen. Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir delved into calamities in Beirut. Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort revealed soldiers’ frustrations at the final retreat from that country in 2000. Now Samuel Maoz lays bare how compromised directives and a bungled mission traumatized his tank unit on the first day of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

In a literal and metaphorical tour de force about war, Maoz restricts the audience’s point of view to only what the young soldiers in the Armored Corps can see and hear in their tank. In what may be a first in a war film, the young men only view the outside world through the disjointed, robotic movements of the clunky periscope. The crew of “the rhino” doesn’t even have time to agree on their assignments before they head out on what they are told will be an easy one-day clean-up operation following Israeli Air Force strikes.

A neophyte commander, Assi (Itay Tiran, even more magnetic than in Forgiveness) indecisively wavers between camaraderie and intimidation to achieve unit cohesion, and his argumentative crew immediately undermines his authority. The youngest, Herzl the loader (Oshri Cohen), whines. Yigal the driver (Michael Moshonov) is inexperienced. And representing the role Maoz himself served, the panicky gunner Shmulik (Yoav Donat in a striking debut) keeps requesting to call his mother. The disconnect between what they are told and what they perceive heightens their confusion within the balky tank. The map directions don’t match where they are going, and ordered to aim and shoot at the armed enemy, Shmulik mostly sees terrified village women and children through his viewfinder.

The fog of war here is very much in the claustrophobic tradition of Wolfgang Petersen’s submarine classic Das Boot. The tank turns more and more oppressive, with its mixture of sweat, vomit, urine, spilled fuel, and spent shells (we can be thankful this isn’t in Smell-O-Vision). When a helicopter arrives to remove the corpse of a soldier they had to rescue (euphemistically called an “angel”), the men are overwhelmed by the noise, dust, and rocks swirling around them. With tight editing, the psychological and physical heat inside the tank builds, the water and medical supplies run out, and the alarming sense that they were sent into a trap rises.

Tensions ratchet up even more when a wounded prisoner is dropped inside the tank. The intensity of the cross-cultural confusion is lost a bit in the English subtitles; when Assi yells “Die!” at the crying captive, he is really saying “Enough!” in Hebrew. But when the Arabic translator from their allies, the Christian Phalangists, insists the manacled man is a Syrian interloper and proceeds to torture him, they realize something is amiss.

While non-Israelis may not be sensitive to the class and regional animosities among the crew, their personalities are distinctively individual, athough their emotions and debates are more than a bit theatrically heightened for tragic emphasis in the small, dark confines. Additionally, a few scenes are played out to maximize the sense that the theater of war is the theater of the absurd. However, this fictionalized look back at fighting in the Middle East feels as fresh and intimately credible as the experiences of the American soldiers in the Afghanistan war documentary Restrepo. Beyond criticism of Israel’s military mistakes, and posttraumatic stress disorder therapy for the filmmaker, Lebanon is a wrenching tribute to the travails of the universal soldier. Nora Lee Mandel
August 6, 2010



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