If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from movies, it’s that war is hell. Samuel Moaz brings his real-life experience of the first Lebanon war to the big screen and the result is a tense, claustrophobic thriller that doesn’t quite have the emotional punch that it needs to have.
The film centres on the crew of a tank called Rhino: gunner Shmulik (Yoav Donat), driver Igal (Michael Moshonov), shell-loader Herzel (Oshri Cohen) and captain Asi (Itay Tiran) – all of whom are green in the field at the outbreak of war in Lebanon in 1982.
They’re ordered to mop up the remains of a recently bombarded village by Commander Gamil (Zohar Strauss) who has no truck with their hesitations. But things go rapidly wrong as they’re ordered to fire upon civilians and the true horror of war descends upon the company. Soon they’re stuck behind enemy lines with a dead comrade and a Syrian prisoner, slowly cracking under the pressure of armed conflict.
Director Samuel Moaz does an excellent job at conveying the claustrophobia that exists in the tank in what is essentially a one-room play. You can almost smell the diesel mixed with sweat and fear and the layer of oily dirt that permanently covers the crew as they move about in clammy semi-darkness will make you want to have a shower almost immediately after leaving the cinema. The film could be about any tank and any war in any country – the fact that it’s Lebanon is hardly apparent or necessarily relevant.
The decision to film almost everything outside the tank through Shmulik’s viewfinder is inspired – his view (and ours) is restricted to snapshots of the outside world and enhances the inhumanity and mechanical detachment of the tank. This is none more apparent when they’re asked to fire on a civilian group and a woman is left crying half-naked in rags looking for her missing child while Shmulik looks on coldly through the viewfinder.
That’s not to say that the crew don’t think about their actions, quite the opposite, as the crew’s frayed nerves start to snap – Shmulik refuses to fire, Igal the driver panics and wants to drive the tank home and Assi starts to lose his mind.
Moaz was a former gunner in the Israeli military and so the amount of bickering that goes on in the tank is believable if a little too functional at times. This isn’t helped by the layers of dirt that build up on the actor’s faces over the course of the film – it eventually becomes quite difficult to work out who’s speaking. It’s also not always clear how many soldiers there are in tank either which undermines a lot of the tension when someone you’d totally forgotten about pipes up to speak.
And as is the danger of any film set in one room, there’s a tendency for the film to feel like a stage play and with a lack of well defined individuality for each character (most likely a deliberate decision to make the soldiers more anonymous); it’s difficult to have the emotional engagement that the film wants you to have.
Lebanon is still a well-crafted and tense thriller but falls some way shy of the initial claim that it’s “Das Boot in a tank”.