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The Oscar-nominated Danish film A War is a messy yet terrific look at Afghanistan

The film has empathy for everyone fighting a seemingly endless war

A War centers on the impossible decisions of one man in the midst of chaos.
A War centers on the impossible decisions of one man in the midst of chaos.
Magnolia Pictures
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

A War, the Danish nominee for best foreign film at the Oscars, is not a masterpiece. It's as messy and uneven as real life.



But messiness is inherent to why A War works. It's an honest attempt to view the Afghanistan war — 15 years in — from as many angles as possible, while expressing empathy for those fighting it, those who believe Western forces have committed horrible war crimes in the perpetration of the war, and Afghani citizens caught in the crossfire.

It is not a perfect film, but it's an honest one, and it might make you think for a moment about the consequences of a war that's still being fought, even as most of us who live in the countries waging it remain distant. A War is about what happens when combat becomes an impersonal, dehumanizing experience.

A War succeeds thanks to its empathy

Claus stands trial.
Claus (Pilou Asbæk) stands trial for potential war crimes.
Magnolia Pictures

The film hails from director/writer Tobias Lindholm, whose work writing much of the first two seasons of the superior Danish political series Borgen marked him as a rising force in the category of "art with political nuance." From there, he helped write the Oscar-nominated The Hunt, about a man accused of pedophilia, and then wrote and directed the terrific A Hijacking, which serves as a pseudo-companion to A War.

In both A Hijacking and A War, Lindholm is joined by his old Borgen star Pilou Asbæk, an actor who always seems a little bit world-weary, a quality that sometimes lets him get away with horrible things onscreen.

In A War, Asbæk plays Claus, a Danish career soldier who's been away in Afghanistan for many months when the film begins. He watches over his men from a command room, and gets frustrated when one of them is killed by stepping on an IED. He leads them on patrol, and gets too drawn into the lives of an Afghani family. And when bullets start flying, he makes a choice that lands him in trouble back in Denmark, where he's tried as a war criminal.

The film cuts between Claus in the field and his wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny), at home in Denmark with the couple's three children. Lindholm smartly employs the same distancing effect to depict Claus's relationship to his men and Maria's to hers and Claus's children, as if both halves of this couple are watching over people they can't hope to protect.

It's only when Claus returns to Denmark to stand trial, in the film's second half, that Lindholm reveals exactly what he's done. And it's very hard to argue that Claus didn't break the law, but because of how chaotic the battlefield can be and because of how well we've gotten to know him, we want him to be exonerated anyway. And yet everything the prosecutor says against Claus is, essentially, accurate. If society is just, he'll go to prison.

The film presents many points of view, save one

Battle erupts in A War.
The chaos of battle erupts in A War.
Magnolia Pictures

At first, it seems like A War is arguing that viewers can't possibly understand what it's like to be in the midst of battle unless they've been there. And Lindholm stages his combat sequences with small-scale aplomb. The camera crowds the faces of the actors, and bonds are forged under gunfire. The scenes, shot in Turkey, create an effective approximation of Afghanistan as we've seen it from news cameras, but they also push further, into the lives of Afghanis.

But ultimately, it becomes clearer that Lindholm's movie isn't pro- or antiwar. It simply views war as something that is, an event that grinds up those involved in it, even once they're safely back home. A War isn't about whether war is necessary; it's about whether anyone can be both an empathetic human being and a warrior who must kill as many fellow human beings as possible, so long as they're on the other side.

If the film has a key flaw, it's that the Taliban forces Claus and his men are battling against are never once depicted onscreen. On the one hand, this allows the film to maintain its eerie depiction of the distance of modern war. (The one time we see a Taliban fighter fall, it's through binoculars, at a great distance.) On the other hand, it inadvertently turns the Taliban into an inhuman "other" — the exact opposite of what Lindholm is trying to do with everybody else.

A War makes up for this, somewhat, with the depiction of a small Afghan family who fear both the Taliban and the Western forces that visit from time to time. The family is portrayed by a real refugee family who escaped Afghanistan on the back of a donkey, and A War goes to great lengths to depict them as people trapped in an impossible situation, the truest victims of war there are.

It's that empathy that occasionally threatens to make A War so top-heavy, so full of point-of-view characters that it will tumble over. But by the time the film reaches its graceful, enigmatic final shot, you'll realize just how conflicted you are. So long as war exists, A War says, there will never be easy answers.

A War is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles. It will expand throughout the country in the weeks to come. Check when it might come to your area here.