Curious name, “A War.” The setting of Tobias Lindholm’s miniature combat film is very specific—Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, where a group of Danish soldiers try to keep the peace—and yet that title, with its assertive indefinite article, suggests a deliberate distancing, presenting instead a military operation that might stand in for many battles and maybe all wars. It’s no surprise, then, that when the story finally turns on the accusation of a war crime, “A War” is less concerned with the specific matter of guilt than with confronting the universal ethical quandaries of armed struggle.
Take, for example, how the benevolence of the Danish troops, led by a youthful, judicious commander named Claus Pedersen, creates an unforeseen and tragic ripple effect. The patrolling soldiers share a kite with a young boy, pledge to help the locals build a well, and patch up a little girl suffering from deep burns on her forearm. Upon receiving the soldiers’ charity, however, the Afghan family is visited by the Taliban, who demand that the patriarch join them as a warrior or face execution. “We’ll protect you,” Pedersen says, but it’s not a promise he can keep. Worse, after the Taliban exploit the situation to corner and ambush his unit, Pedersen orders an air strike that kills 11 civilians and lands him back home in Denmark to testify before a military court.
In some ways, “A War” echoes “A Hijacking,” Lindholm’s 2012 procedural about the negotiations between Somali pirates and the CEO of a shipping corporation. Beyond the obvious title and casting connections (both pictures feature Pilou Asbaek and Søren Malling in key roles), there’s a shared interest in violence as power, the collateral damage inflicted upon families, and the way people with limited comprehension attempt to referee unknowable and illogical circumstances. Apart from several tense and lifelike gunfights—the camera keeps ducking as if taking cover—“A War” largely eschews fireworks, aiming instead for a non-judgmental, objective portrait of wartime dilemmas. Even the domestic and courtroom scenes are staged with an even hand, which yields a bracing sense of authenticity.
Lindholm’s main strategy is to move the commander, and by extension the audience, through one layer of realization to the next. It doesn’t take long for Pedersen to acknowledge how his blunder—made to save the life of a wounded soldier—had dire consequences, but he’s slower to comprehend how his service has taken a toll on his family, especially his wife Maria, who has struggled to manage the home front in his absence. In one devastating scene, Pedersen’s young daughter asks whether it’s true he’s killed children, and his silence is both revealing and the right choice. As played by Asbaek, one of Scandinavia’s greatest actors, Pedersen is a committed husband, father, and leader of men, an honorable figure who nevertheless cannot reconcile his conflicting loyalties and bewildering moral confusion. What happens when self-preservation instincts conflict with the rules of engagement? Was the commander’s decision at once justifiable and a breach of law? For Pedersen, both telling the truth and telling a lie will require compromising at least one of his core values. Things get sticky, and while Pedersen’s story has a conclusion, it hardly qualifies as closure.
There’s a war—ah, that title—rumbling inside of Pedersen that mirrors the philosophical contradictions of modern warfare. It’s somehow fitting that “A War,” nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, will vie for an Oscar the same week that President Obama called for the shuttering of Guantanamo Bay, that dark symbol of how easily a nation can lose its moral compass in times of crisis.