All of Lebanon takes place inside a tank on June 6, 1982, the first day of the Lebanon War, when the Defense Forces of Israel invaded its neighbor’s southern region. With the exception of the film’s opening and closing shots, the camera stays inside the vehicle, showing us only what the four young soldiers inside can see through its periscope. The limited perspective of the world outside, combined with the claustrophobic, clammy interior of the rumbling tank, immediately generate a tremendous tension, and the film wastes no time in ratcheting up the stress.
The unit is given simple orders: Guard roads, rendezvous with infantry at specific points and provide cover fire for ground units searching a bombed-out town. But at the first sign of conflict, the tank’s frightened gunman, Shmulik (Yoav Donat), freezes and can’t pull the trigger, resulting in the death of an Israeli soldier. The next time a potential threat appears, Shmulik follows orders, closes his eyes and shoots. When the smoke clears, the supposed terrorist turns out to be a chicken farmer who lies on the ground screaming in pain, mortally wounded.
Like Ari Folman, the director of the 2008 animated war film Waltz With Bashir, Lebanon writer-director Samuel Maoz bases his film on his personal experiences (he was a tank gunner), coming up with a unique, captivating perspective on one of the oldest of all film genres. Also like Bashir, Lebanon is critical of the Israeli invasion, which resulted in a colossal loss of innocent lives, while also giving a face to the treacherous, elusive terrorists who needed to be confronted.
Reminiscent of Das Boot, which was set inside a German submarine, Lebanon is a sensory experience: You can practically smell the stench inside the dank, cramped, dirty interior, slick with oil and water and sweat. The horrors that Shmulik often witnesses while peering through his viewfinder are unspeakable. The moral ambiguity and confusion of war have rarely been captured on film with this much power and efficiency.
Lebanon isn’t quite so effective when it focuses on the bickering among the soldiers, which often feels forced. The emotional meltdown of the unit’s commanding officer Assi (Itay Tiran), for example, is hackneyed, and the constant needling by the tank’s weapon loader, Hertzel (Oshri Cohen), who only has two weeks left of military service, quickly grows tiresome.
But even though Lebanon fares better as a visceral – rather than emotional – experience, its most powerful moment takes place inside the tank, without a word of dialogue, when Shmulik performs an act of kindness toward a Syrian prisoner the men are transporting. Harrowing and grueling, Lebanon ends on a gentle, hopeful note: Even under the direst circumstances, simple human decency – even toward the enemy – can always find a way to survive.
Cast: Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Strauss, Dudu Tassa.
Writer-director: Samuel Maoz.
Producers: Uri Sabag, Einat Bikel, Moshe Edery.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 92 minutes. In Hebrew, Arabic and English with English subtitles. Vulgar language, violence, gore, nudity, adult themes.