War is Hell, both in Afghanistan and on the homefront in Tobias Lindholm’s A War. The commander of a battle-weary platoon of Danish soldiers, Claus Pederson (A Hijacking and Borgen’s Pilou Asbæk) struggles to keep both morale and his men alive during a disastrous tour of Afghanistan’s notorious Helmland province.
Meanwhile, back in Denmark, as Claus is forced to deal with physically and psychically wounded comrades, devastating IEDs and increasingly desperate local civilians, his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) struggles to look after their three kids, each battling in their own way to deal with their father’s absence.
When a routine patrol explodes into a murderous ambush, his men being cut to ribbons by sniper and mortar fire, Claus makes a split-second decision, calling in an air strike that save the lives of him and his men but results in innocent civilian casualties. Shipped back to Denmark in disgrace, Claus and Maria enter the battle of their lives as Claus is dragged to court to face prosecution for war crimes. But in the heat of war, is there such a thing as innocence…?
Perhaps the first truly important dramatisation of our Forever War on Terror, Danish writer/director Tobias Lindholm’s A War is closer to Sebastian Junger’s quietly ferocious documentaries Restrepo and Korengal or Denmark’s own warts-and-all portrait of life in Helmland, the wonderful Armadillo, than the war-mongering, comic book jingoism of Lone Survivor. Collaborating again with A Hijacking star Asbæk and editor Adam Nielsen, Lindholm delivers a tense, no-frills, almost matter-of-fact portrait of war and it’s fallout that’s as searing as it is spare.
While the war scenes stun in their understated ferocity, shunning the pyrotechnics and easy morality of lesser war movies in favour of a queasy, bewildering realism, aided by Lindholm’s casting of Danish former squaddies and Afghan refugees, it’s the performances that truly set A War apart. As the fundamentally decent Claus, Asbæk is wonderful, his steely stoicism and calm, solid masculinity masking a war of insecurity and inexperience while Novotny is far from the weak, mild-mannered, keep-the-home-fires-burning wife. As the conflict shifts from the battlefield to the courtroom it becomes abundantly clear that as Claus finds himself caught on the horns of the dilemma between his personal honour and the needs of his family, it’s Maria who’s the stronger, more pragmatic partner. “You may have killed eight kids but you have three living ones at home,” Maria warns the tortured Claus at one point when his conscience threatens to tear him apart. It’s a stark, horrible, naked truth but it’s still the truth.
A moral and ethical rollercoaster that refuses to offer easy, digestible answers, A War is a raw, honest, sensitive piece the equal of A Hijacking or Lindholm’s fantastic script for Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt.