Pragmatism and survival go hand in hand for Tobias Lindholm, the Danish director of R, A Hijacking and A War. Taking place in a maximum-security prison, a besieged freighter and war-torn Afghanistan, respectively, his films explore what happens when a person's empathy is slowly stripped away by the volatility and madness of his surroundings. Each complicates the limits of human durability.
Much of this complexity can be attributed to Pilou Asbæk, the star of all three films. The actor's guarded intensity comes to personify the extreme situational angst, linking Lindholm's work as a trilogy founded on the details of performance and malleability. Compromising one's best self takes a toll, and the talented Asbæk is already an expert at making this extremely nuanced process relatable. Lindholm and his star have developed a rapport that could end up rivaling that of Scorsese and De Niro.
In A War, Asbæk plays resolute military commander Claus M. Pederson whose regiment of Danish soldiers goes on daily patrols in the Helmand Province. The opening sequence establishes the deafening sound design, as an IED decimates one unlucky recruit upon detonation. This latest loss understandably affects the soldiers' morale, leading Claus to lead by example and join his subordinates on high-risk operations.
Unlike Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, which firmly situates its narrative within the professional duties of beleaguered soldiers, A War intercuts between Claus and his wife Maria (the equally impressive Tuva Novotny) who's raising their three young children back at home in Denmark. Lindholm sees these stories as mirror images of each other, with both man and wife having to compartmentalize their pain of separation in order to do their jobs.
If Lindholm's R and A Hijacking are very much stories of individual struggle, A War broadens its scope to look at how family and professional relationships are tested. This effectively makes it Lindholm's most ambitious work to date; yet he and Asbæk are not interested in making a film about the political implications of Denmark's military action against the Taliban. Instead, A War stays dedicated to the ground level and the support systems that exist in order to make prolonged sacrifice seem tolerable and mundane.
Claus' relationship with both his soldiers and family are tested when he's indicted for calling in an airstrike that inadvertently killed civilians during a fierce gunfight in an Afghan village. Lindholm expertly cuts the action scene from the vantage point of Claus and his men, never directly referencing the Taliban fighters. All we see is chaos; all we hear is gunfire, explosions and the screams of his men.
The impending trial back home can't help but take a more calculating structure, which stands out from the more free-form first half. But the same dilemmas are on display. Can one rationalize a mistake if it was made in the name of saving lives? Even Asbæk's thick beard can't hide the severity of this internal conflict every that weighs so heavily on his face.
While the film fails to plow new ground in the war genre, it's meticulously crafted and wisely interprets pragmatism as a double-edged sword. Claus is undeniably a good and thoughtful leader, but the humanity of his actions makes him more vulnerable to mistakes and scrutiny. This is somewhat an inverse point of view from A Hijacking's story of resolve and endurance, aligning more with R's degradation of the human spirit, albeit in subtler ways.
A War, which opens Friday, Feb. 26, refuses to highlight the typical dramatic highs. In fact, it often denies us access to them, instead lingering on the thunderous silence that follows.