If you’re looking to make a movie about sympathetic men under incredible duress, look no further than director Tobias Lindholm and his frequent star, Pilou Asbaek. Their collaborations mark what appear to be a thematic trilogy of emotional brutality across unexpected battlfields. Their last film, the tense “A Hijacking” thrust Asbaek into the middle of a Somali pirate attack while corporate interests haggled over how to (or even if they should) rescue him. Lindholm expands the idea across multiple battlefields (including a literal one) in the volatile, devastating “A War”, a film that forces you to think about the impossible choices soldiers are forced to make every day.
Life or death matters are given equal weight to decisions affecting the homestead because, to the individual serviceman, they are one and the same. Asbaek, reliably back in everyman mode, plays Danish army Commander Claus Pederson. Claus is a decent man who cares for the troops under his charge. He’s a protector, first and foremost; we see it in the gentle way he speaks to the men, and the concern he has for their daily well-being. Their mission, which is to basically help nearby villagers reject Taliban influence, seems relatively safe. That veneer is shattered when a mission goes terribly awry, leaving his soldiers physically and emotionally scarred. Claus’ only comfort is the regular phone call home, where his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) is fighting a battle of her own; taking care of three kids all by herself. The eldest son is having difficulty adjusting without his father around, and every time Maria turns her back one of them is getting into some kind of trouble.
When another mission erupts into an explosive firefight, Claus is forced to make a desperate split second decision to save the lives of his men. Calling in a missile strike without awareness of his surroundings, Claus inadvertently causes the kind of civilian casualties that become global headlines. They waste no time in sending Claus home so he can be brought up on war crimes, with a lengthy prison stint in his future. Claus is a good man who made a bad decision for the right reasons, a theme Lindholm has enthusiastically explored in the past and does so again with equal vigor. But he does so by exploring the impact of those decisions, and whether any of those choices can ever be good enough to stave off disaster. When one soldier, Lasse (Dulfi Al-Jabouri), has an emotional breakdown after watching a soldier die in his arms, it’s Claus who builds him back up and gets him out on patrol. It’s a choice he made to lift the unit’s spirits, but was it the right thing to do given that it leads to greater turmoil soon after? And how are Claus’ choices being felt back at home? Lindholm parallels his internal struggle with Maria’s, who is coping with growing anxiety and loneliness over her husband’s extended tours. Yet when he finally does come home, just as she had wanted, it doesn’t offer much in the way of relief.
The final battlefield Lindholm lays out is in the courtroom, where Claus and his lawyer (Soren Malling) try to rescue his tattered reputation. Whereas “A Hijacking” was about physical survival, “A War” is about that and more, encompassing a man’s career, family, and good name. Once again Claus is put in the position of making a decision that could compromise everything he holds dear, but the weight of what he has to do is largely reflected internally. This is another quiet, reflective piece by Lindholm, who has become a master of delivering big, Hollywood-style thrillers with a personal touch. Even the gruesome war scenes, of which there are a couple, are shot by Lindholm and DP Magnus Nordenhof Jønck with incredible urgency, creating a palpable sense of unease that carries throughout. That said, this doesn’t have the edge-of-your-set tension of Lindholm’s prior film; the legal scenes just don’t demand it and Claus’ predicament is wrapped up too neatly, which is a shame given how uncompromsing it is up to that point.
Unlike “American Sniper”‘s ham-fisted attempt at the same, “A War” skillfully and thoughtfully examines the true costs of military service. It’s not about how many enemies one can kill, nor is it even just about staying alive. It’s about making the right choices so that there is a life to return to when the fighting stops.