Ever since Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the latter has often been referred to as the former's Vietnam. The numbers aren't quite as severe, but the analogy holds true in that it's a long conflict Israel can't seem to shake. Every action taken by any of the factions involved has had lasting political and physical fallout, but like any war, those realities rarely have anything to do with the decisions one makes while on the ground and in the fight.
That's where Lebanon comes in. Samuel Moaz's film, which earned the Golden Lion Award at last year's Venice Film Festival, had a strong showing at Israel's version of the Oscars. Based on Moaz's own experiences during the opening moments of the war, the entire film takes place inside a tank, from the point of view of the four young men assigned to drive it around Lebanon and destroy whatever gets in their way.
Shmulik (Yoav Donat) is the tank's gunner, the new man on the job. Yigal (Michael Moshonov) is the driver. Herzel (Oshri Cohen) is the
loader. And Asi (Itay Tiran) is in charge. Except for the film's opening and closing moments, all we see is the tank's interior and what Shmulik is able to see through his scope. It's an intriguing device—the war is taking place around them, and although they are part of it, they are also disconnected and cut off from it. When they see the world outside the tank, it looks like they're watching a movie, completely detached from the reality around them. Occasionally, their solitude is interrupted by their commander, Gamil (Zohar Shtrauss), or because the tank is being used to store prisoners or a dead soldier.
The thing is, these guys have a job to do, but they're only so good at it. They're young men thrust into a war and told to defend and kill. But they're terrified, they have little to no idea why they're there and they can barely navigate the urban terrain. And if they make mistakes or can't pull the trigger, one of their comrades on the outside of the tank could be killed.
Of course, it's claustrophobic; the interior of the tank and the art direction give the film a greasy, sweaty feel. The floor is coated with a layer of oil and water, and the shock absorbers aren't much to speak of—it's not a smooth ride, and everything not bolted down, like food or urine, ends up all over the interior. But if it's close, stinky quarters inside, the outside is even scarier, as the tank and the soldiers accompanying it find themselves surrounded by foreign forces, cut off from help and dealing with ambiguous ethical and moral decisions.
Maoz levels occasional jabs at Israel's wartime policies, like using phosphorus rounds or its dependence on militias like like the Lebanese Phalangists, who would go on to commit one of the conflict's worst atrocities. But none of that has anything to do with the men in the tank. No matter what you might think about Israel and its policies, the point here is that these aren't heroes or villains—they're just young men who are in over their heads.
Lebanon's not perfect. It's possible that being so close to the material himself, Maoz fell prey to some clichéd dialogue and character motivations. In some ways, it's an experimental project, but it's also a complete film, which, due to the small set and a visual concept that can become draining, is wisely brought in around 90 minutes. Donat is tortured by the decisions he's forced to make as the man who, like the audience, comes into the tank with a fresh set of eyes. And Cohen, who starred in Beaufort, another Lebanon film, is a surly charismatic charmer, even under the circumstances.
Due to Israel's compulsory military service, there's no shortage of men who served in Lebanon and are now middle-age and still trying to reconcile their involvement. Lebanon may not offer the larger picture like the 2007 animated film Waltz With Bashir did, but that's sort of the idea—the men in the tank have the smallest picture possible available to them. It's a big-picture look at soldiers who have nothing but a very small window.