One of the four films destined to lose the foreign-language Oscar to Son Of Saul, Denmark’s A War sees writer-director Tobias Lindholm (A Hijacking) once again juxtaposing a simple title with a complex situation. The war in question is the one in Afghanistan, to which Denmark sent 9,500 soldiers between 2002 and 2013. Claus Michael Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk, who also starred in A Hijacking) commands a unit that spends most of its time protecting innocent Afghan civilians from Taliban attacks. The film spends much of its first half-hour or so establishing Claus as a thoroughly decent guy who’s genuinely concerned about the men he sends out on sometimes lethal patrols; when one of them experiences post-traumatic stress after seeing a friend blown apart from by an IED, Claus gives him pencil-pushing duties for a while, and later even accompanies him in the field. However, that means that Claus happens to be with the company when it’s suddenly ambushed, and winds up making a decision that saves his men’s lives at the expense of 11 civilians, including six children. Was he justified? That decision is left to the viewer.
Lindholm’s approach to this potentially explosive material is so measured and deliberate that it’s hard to recognize where he’s taking the story—even the attack and bombing that eventually lead to Claus being court-martialed (or whatever the Danish equivalent of that process is called) play as just another scene. In fact, the entire first hour of A War alternates between Claus’ company in Afghanistan and Claus’ family back in Copenhagen, in a way that implicitly suggests a comparison between being a commander and being a parent. Claus’ wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny), has to take care of their three kids solo during his tour of duty—as the movie begins, he still has three months to go—and Lindholm quietly engineers parallels between his anxiety about his men’s safety and her anxiety about how the children are coping with his long absence. A scene in which Claus instructs a sniper targeting a Taliban soldier who’s using Afghan kids as a human shield, for example, rhymes with a scene in which Maria rushes their youngest son to the hospital after he eats a bunch of Tylenol capsules, holding the boy’s hand while his stomach is pumped.
So it’s something of a surprise when A War suddenly turns into a courtroom drama halfway through. Charged with bombing a civilian target without reasonable cause, Claus is sent back to Denmark to stand trial, and reluctantly agrees to plead not guilty—at Maria’s behest, for the sake of their kids—even though he knows that his decision was a disastrous error in judgment. This creates a certain amount of cognitive dissonance during the trial scenes, as it’s difficult to root for either conviction or acquittal. Compounding this confusion, Claus’ defense attorney (Søren Malling) is an unscrupulous slickster who more or less instructs Claus to commit perjury, while the prosecutor (Charlotte Munck) comes across as a passionate advocate for justice who recognizes Claus’ humanity while also insisting that he must be punished. The film is low-key and evenhanded to a fault, resisting opportunities for melodrama at every turn; it radiates intelligence and fairness, which, while admirable, don’t exactly inspire a strong emotional response. As a thoughtful alternative to overblown Hollywood war movies like Lone Survivor, however, it’s more than welcome.