“Man is steel. The tank is only iron.” On July 12, 2006, conflict began between Israel and Lebanon. It began when Hezbollah soldiers fired rockets into Israel and blew up two armored Humvees patrolling the Israeli side of the border. Three soldiers died. Two other soldiers were taken by Hezbollah into Lebanon. Israel responded and for 34 days they carried out air strikes and rolled into Lebanon with tanks and foot soldiers. The writer/director of Lebanon, Samuel Maoz, was himself a gunner in one of those tanks, so this is a sort-of autobiography of his experiences. You can feel that placing this story on paper and on celluloid was a form therapy for Samuel. He places us, as the audience, in the dark, dank, cold, putrid, unwelcoming pit of a monster that he knows all too well. And because the camera never leaves the inside of that tank, save for two small book-ending scenes, he shows us what it felt like to be sequestered in those claustrophobic spaces only understanding the outside world what we see through the gunner’s scope.
A single tank is sent into a small town that has already been bombed by the Israeli Air Force. Inside the tank are four young men: Herzel (Oshri Cohen), the loader; Assi (Itay Tiran), the commander; Yigal (Michael Moshonov), the driver; and Shmuel (Yoav Donat), the gunner. For all of them, this is their first taste of war. The first day of fighting pushes all four of these men past anything they were trained for. For who can be trained to fire on unarmed civilians, to plow their way through streets that just hours before teemed with life, to see the blood and havoc that war creates and not let it change and effect their humanity?
The other film that is constantly being brought up when one speaks of Lebanon is Waltz with Bashir, the foreign picture Oscar contender of 2008. Both of them deal with the same war and the same psychological trauma it inflicted on its soldiers, but in wholly different ways. This film showed me an entirely new angle to war, one I had not seen in any war film. The closest comparison that comes to mind is the German film Das Boot but even in that film the sense of confinement doesn’t feel this suffocating. It is impressive that I felt the same heart-pounding, dizzying feeling I got from the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan from sections of this film and, as I’ve said, the camera never leaves the inside of the tank.
When the gunner is looking out his scope, we get to see some sunshine. We get to see a family torn apart. We get to see a soldier bleed out. We get to see inside a travel agency and have a weird feeling in the pits of our stomachs as the cross-hairs of the cannon rests upon a picture of the Twin Towers. Most times with any slight movement the turret moans and creaks in protest, but as with any gimmick there are other times when this is cheated, when empathy is being attempted and the whirrs and clanks would get in the way, so they are left out all together. Apart from this story necessary hitch, the rest of the sound design makes it feel like the world is about to come crushing down around us. The only real gripe I have is that the score is sometimes misaligned and did not add to what I was watching. However, that is a small quibble for a film I honestly and wholeheartedly respect.
The first thing that struck me as I was watching Lebanon was how confident the film making felt. For only being the second film that Samuel Maoz has ever directed and first one written, you can feel how much he knew this story and exactly how best to portray it. He was able to take what could have been a gimmick and made it impressive. If I venture to read more into it than may be there, it showed how myopic the “war machine” is. The young men, specifically the gunner, can’t really see most of the destruction that their shells are creating. One of God’s little blessings. Just as the people who sit in plush chairs and push pens across paper to declare war cannot see the destruction they cause. Like I said, that may not be what Samuel was going for, but it feels apropos.